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Originally published Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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Yakima school dress code: white, gray or black

The sameness is what stands out.

Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. —

The sameness is what stands out.

The halls of Washington Middle School - awash in white, gray and black - are very much alike these days. At least, they are on top: a mix of polos, Oxfords and hooded sweat shirts in the same three colors.

And students don't really seem to mind. At least, not too much.

"It's, like, more professional-ish," says 13-year-old Adrian Garcia, adding, "There's no kids that are judged if they have, like, messy clothes because everybody's the same."

Whether students see it as unity or conformity, there's a new dress code at Washington. The policy took effect Jan. 3, the day students returned from winter break.

It's called Dress for Success. It aims to make the campus in southeast Yakima, a high-poverty neighborhood known for its gang activity, a safer place.

A month and a half into it, principal Dave Chaplin says, it's "worked very well."

"I wish I could say it's going to change our test scores and make everyone (achieve at) grade-level. But that's not why we did it. We did it to improve safety and the climate around the school, and we did it with input from the Yakima Police Department, through our SRO," or school resource officer.

So far, Washington is the only middle school in the Yakima School District to adopt a uniform code of dress. But administrators at several other schools have enacted -- or are considering -- similar policies.

Stanton Academy, the district's alternative high school, implemented a uniform code of dress at the start of the school year.

Barge-Lincoln Elementary School has a voluntary dress code, and officials are considering making it mandatory.

Similar requirements are also being discussed at Lewis and Clark Middle School, Franklin Middle School and Eisenhower High School. At this point, a uniform code of dress isn't being discussed at Davis High School, said district spokeswoman Mary Beth Wright.

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At Washington, Chaplin says, "I think it develops a source of pride for the school and reduces the outside influences that get in the way of instruction."

Those distractions include things such as low-cut T-shirts and tank tops on sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls, gang-related clothing on all students, and kids from other schools or other people - including older gang members - who aren't supposed to be on school grounds during school hours.

"Kids sometimes grow up with adults - all blue, all red," says Garcia, an eighth-grader. "That can affect kids' lives here (at school)."

The sameness of his peers' attire doesn't bother him or 13-year-old Juan Sanchez, a seventh-grader, who says, "My opinion is Dress for Success is helping us a lot. It's helping us be safer."

About 700 students attend Washington Middle School. Most of them -- nearly 96 percent -- qualify for free and reduced-price meals. More than a third are transitional bilingual students. And a third are also migrant students.

They live in a low-income neighborhood, a place where gang graffiti covers mailboxes, fences and boarded-up homes. In recent years, the area has seen several shootings.

On campus, however, students and staff members alike say the new dress code has had a calming effect.

"The climate is a lot much better," says 13-year-old eighth-grader Jasmin Heredia. "I'm not, like, overjoyed at wearing the same thing every day because I get new clothes I can't wear to school."

But, she says, "It's easier in the morning because I just pick a polo shirt."

There's another benefit, too. According to the principal, Dress for Success helps level the playing field, alleviating socioeconomic differences between students.

Many of their families in the neighborhood can't afford brand-name clothing at an age when peer pressure, appearance and the need to fit in seem to rule the school.

Now, Chaplin says, "All of our kids don't have to worry about whether they're wearing Aéropostale."

Uniforms and dress codes have long been the norm at private schools. But they're relatively new to public schools.

According to the Education Commission of the States, incidents of violence on public school campuses across the country have prompted increased interest in more rigorous dress codes and uniforms in recent years.

The nonpartisan, Denver-based organization has identified 21 states -- as well as the District of Columbia -- that have passed policies authorizing districts or schools to require uniforms.

Back in 2000, the Philadelphia Board of Education was the first large-city school board to require uniforms in all grades, according to the ECS.

And, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Manual on School Uniforms, other large public school systems - such as Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans - have schools with mandatory or voluntary uniform policies, primarily in elementary and middle schools.

The trend is less common in rural and smaller districts.

But Yakima School District Superintendent Elaine Beraza says research shows uniforms and dress codes act as "an equalizer in student achievement."

"It's not based on what you can afford to wear," she says. "You can recognize the students. And you don't have the red and blue thing going on."

Red and blue represent rival gangs. They also happen to be the school colors at Ike, where officials are considering a uniform code of dress for the coming school year. A committee has been formed to develop criteria.

And a recent survey of Ike parents showed the majority - about 70 percent - are in favor of the plan.

"The research is very clear in showing students who feel safe and secure in school ... are going to be more successful in learning and facing challenges in school," says Ike principal Stacey Locke.

A 2004 survey of Ike students showed 59 percent felt safe in school. When polled last May, the number had jumped to 82 percent.

But, Locke says, "We need to be at 100 percent."

And she believes a uniform code of dress can help.

"It's been known to decrease violence and theft, especially among students, over designer clothing or expensive sneakers," she says. "It helps prevent gang members from wearing gang colors. It helps parents and students resist peer pressure. It helps schools recognize intruders."

At Washington, Chaplin says he's only received one parent complaint. It was about the cost.

The change was made midyear to have plenty of time to get the word out to parents. Information was sent home at the start of the school year and at parent conferences in November. The change was also mentioned in newsletters and a series of automated phone calls.

The code requires students wear black, gray or white polos or dress shirts. They must have at least two buttons and a collar. And they can't carry any patterns, images or insignia other than the school insignia.

The school makes polos available at cost: $7. Hooded sweatshirts -- black, gray or white -- are available for purchase, too, for $12.

"We've had several orders, and we keep restocking," says assistant principal Jewel Brumley, whose office stores extra sweatshirts and polos.

So far, 1,526 polos and 436 hoodies have been ordered in all.

Students are allowed to borrow a polo if they come to school without proper attire.

"The first day, we had a little over 50 who needed to get a shirt," Brumley says. "The next day, it was down to 18."

Usually, three to five students per day need to borrow a polo.

The code only applies to students, but teachers - about half the staff, including Brumley - are adhering to it, too, voluntarily modeling accepted attire.

"It shows teachers care," says Garcia, adding, he thinks the dress code is "a good idea. I personally think it improves Washington's name."

Chaplin says he thinks it's increased the amount of time students spend in class receiving instruction rather than in the office for administrators "to investigate something to do with clothing."

Adilene Badillo, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, agrees.

"The uniforms are better because girls would show a lot, and they would get sent down to change," she says. "They would wear those two colors, red or blue."

In her eyes, the dress code is "OK. It suits me right. It's easier to see everybody the same."

Garcia agrees, but says, "Kids should be rewarded for good behavior."

Maybe, he suggests, Free Dress Fridays.

---

Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

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