Tempe’s school-uniform policy not being adopted by others ... yet

By Doug Snover

Back-to-school shopping will be a new challenge this year for students—and some of the teachers—at Fees Middle School.

Starting with the fall semester, the approximately 1,030 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders must conform to a school “uniform” code that bans the ever-popular jeans, cargo or carpenter-style shorts, and tee shirts with any message not approved by the school.

The Governing Board of Tempe School District No. 3 voted 4-0 on March 23 to impose the mandatory uniform policy, making Fees the first middle school in the district to impose such a restriction. Fees will join elementary schools Nevitt and Wood in requiring uniforms.

The new policy means that students must wear polo, golf or button-down Oxford shirts in solid colors—red, white, or light blue only--and slacks, walking shorts, capris, skirts or jumpers made of uniform twill or cotton in solid khaki, navy or black colors. Even their socks must match.

No other public school in the Kyrene Corridor requires uniforms or has such a restrictive dress code.

“Right now, there are no Kyrene schools that require uniforms,” said Johnny Cruz, spokesman for the Kyrene School District.

“There have been some schools that discussed requiring uniforms in the past, but it’s never gotten to the point of making a decision.”

Terry Locke, director of community relations for the Chandler Unified School District, said the issue of school uniforms “has come up from time to time” in Chandler but so far only the Chandler Traditional Academy’s Liberty Campus, which opened in 2001 to promote a more traditional education for kindergarten through the sixth grade, requires that its students adhere to a “prescribed” dress code.

The Liberty campus requires students to wear patriotic colors--red, white or blue--“that meet the expectations of parents who prefer that sort of thing,” Locke said.  However, even the Liberty Campus allows its students to wear jeans.

Pueblo del Sol Middle School in Phoenix, part of the Isaac elementary district, was one of the first middle schools in the Valley to require uniforms. Isaac’s student population is approximately 88 percent Hispanic, six percent Black and five percent White.

The uniform policy at Fees supersedes a dress code already in place district-wide. 

“It is important for our children not to interrupt instruction by wearing distracting or revealing clothing, spaghetti straps, tube tops, shirts with huge armholes (so the torso is exposed), very short shorts or T-shirts with liquor ads or inappropriate words or messages are not appropriate for school,”a message posted on the district’s website advises parents.

“Also, open-toed sandals may cause a playground hazard for your child. We appreciate your cooperation in monitoring your child’s dress. “

The Fees uniform policy was pressed by a number of teachers who pledged to the Governing Board that they, too, will follow the new dress code rules.  Fees Principal Reynaldo Cruz (no relation to the Kyrene district’s Johnny Cruz) modeled a red shirt and khaki trousers at the Board meeting, saying, “We think we look sharp.”

Principal Cruz said approximately 870 families of Fees students will be affected by the mandatory uniform requirement.

Parents were invited to vote on the uniform policy, with one vote accepted per family over a nine-day period in February. 

According to Cruz, a total of 453 ballots were cast, with 370 “yes” votes supporting mandatory uniforms.

School officials had said the uniform policy would be rejected if less than 80 percent of the votes were in support of uniforms. 

By school officials’ calculations, the “yes” vote was 81.67 percent of the total ballots cast.

However, Tempe district officials acknowledge that as many as 100 of the 453 ballots were cast by teachers at Fees.  “Historically, staff members have been allowed to participate in votes like this one at Fees.  They are not only affected by the vote, but they are also in close communication with parents of their students,” said Monica Allread, the district’s public information coordinator.

Principal Cruz told Governing Board members that he did not have a specific count of the teachers’ vote, but that he had been told that some voted “yes” on uniforms and some voted “no.”

Teachers also made up the bulk of the audience at the Governing Board meeting where mandatory uniforms for Fees were discussed.

“Students act out in various ways the way they dress,” said Gerald Hashem, a Fees teacher. He said mandatory uniforms will give students a “wholesome” look, make it more difficult for students to conceal weapons (in part because shirts must be tucked in) and will help school officials identify “anyone who does not belong on the campus.”

Having students wear uniforms also will teach them that when they come to school they are “at their jobs,” Hashem said.

Uniforms will improve the perception of academics at Fees, agrees Karin Moffitt, another supporter of the uniform policy.  The ways students dress today “is a distraction … with lots of underwear showing from both boys and girls,” she said.

Parents of some students from neighboring Rover Elementary School choose not to send their children to Fees, Moffitt said.

“I want to have a great school in my neighborhood,” said Kristin Shaeffer, another vocal supporter of mandatory uniforms at Fees.  “Uniforms will allow students to come (to school) with the attitude to learn instead of goof off,” she said.

Opponents of the mandatory uniforms questioned the voting process, especially the decision to allow teachers to vote on how parents must dress their children.

Carolyn Greer said the uniform policy was changed several times during the discussions that led up to the controversial vote and “parents may not have understood the policy they were voting on.”  The policy is too restrictive, even mandating the types of material students must wear, she said.

If staff votes were excluded the mandatory uniform policy probably would not have received the required 80 percent support, she said.

Another opponent of mandatory uniforms, Dawn Rumore, said she had understood after attending two meetings on the policy that the uniform policy would pass only if 80 percent of parents supported it --not 80 percent of the votes cast by both parents and teachers. 

“Many parents understood that not voting was the same as a ‘no’ vote,” she said, noting that fewer than half the affected families cast ballots.

“We felt we made a very good-faith effort to extend voting to all interested,” Principal Cruz said.

He acknowledged that requiring uniforms is “a very substantial and substantive change” for parents and said the policy “has to be open to tweaking … as we go along.”

Fees is one of the southernmost schools in the Tempe School District No. 3, drawing students from an area bounded by Baseline Road on the north, Guadalupe Road on the south, McClintock on the east, and Rural Road on the west.  The school also buses students to and from the Town of Guadalupe.

Some typical reasons for requiring school uniforms include eradicating gang presence, improving students’ self-perception, and improving the educational climate.

A study published by an Arizona State University professor and graduate student in Education and Urban Society in 2003 found that perceptions of gang presence did not vary for students, but that  teachers from schools with uniform policies perceived lower levels of gang presence.

Uniforms’ impact on students’ self-perceptions was less positive, however.  Students from schools without uniforms reported higher self-perception than students from schools with uniform policies, and student and teacher perceptions of school climate did not vary across uniform policy.

The study, titled Effect on Perceptions of Gang Presence, School Climate, and Student Self-Perceptions was conducted by Kathleen Kiley Wade, then an ASU graduate student, and Professor Mary E. Stafford of ASU’s College of Education’s Psychology in Education Division.

The study interviewed 415 urban public middle school students and 83 teachers.

Coincidentally, Wade interned at the Tempe School District during her studies at ASU.