A Southwest first: Ramsey students to wear uniforms

Parents applaud, but some kids turn thumbs down

After what everyone involved called an arduous four-year process, students at Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, 1 W. 49th St., will have a school uniform next year -- a first in recent years in Southwest.

Ramsey calls its policy "dress standard," so as not to recall '50s-era parochial-school uniforms, and allows options. Students will be required to wear navy, black or khaki pants (or skirts) with collared white or blue dress or polo shirts. The K-8 school's middle-school students may also wear red. Girls are allowed blue plaid jumpers, in a variety of styles.

The parent-teacher organization is already selling standard-approved Ramsey-wear -- sweatshirts, t-shirts and sweatpants emblazoned with Ramsey's logos.

However, Lisa McClean, the school's family liaison, said parents can buy anywhere they find clothes that fit the standard. They can buy online from the uniform company French Toast or "clothes that fit the standard anywhere from Kmart to Neiman Marcus to a garage sale," McClean said.

Only two other Minneapolis public schools currently have uniforms; Nellie Stone Johnson School and W. Harry Davis Academy, both in north Minneapolis.

Dawn Allen, who was principal at Ramsey and is now at Southwest High School, first suggested uniforms. Allen said a total dress standard would more easily fit within the academic philosophy of Ramsey than other schools. Ramsey already requires students to wear black bottoms with white tops for a monthly school performance.

"As a performing arts center they do a lot of ensemble work that requires teamwork and performing as one," Allen said. "They have an unique opportunity to try out research that says uniforms improve student behavior and grades."

In 2000, the school held its first election on the uniform question, with each family getting one vote. The dress standard won by a simple majority. However, families who opposed the change felt the participation level was too low, and that something other than a vote was needed to gauge opinion.

So in Spring 2000, Ramsey's site council formed a parent-teacher task force including those who were for, against and neutral on a dress code. The task force researched other schools' experience with uniforms, and after a year's discussion with the school community, recommended uniforms.

Parent Karen Youso was one member of the task force who didn't have a pre-conceived opinion on the issue.

Youso said the task force continually found evidence showing positive results from school uniforms. Though they were looking for both sides, Youso said, they couldn't find anyone who had a negative experience moving to uniforms.

"There was a teacher from a St. Paul magnet who talked about how radically opposed he was to uniforms at the beginning. But now, 10 years later, he's banging the drum for them," said Youso.

Most parent testimony supported a dress code, Youso said. Parents thought uniforms would cut down on apparent differences between the socio-economics of students, lessen teasing based on clothes and unify the student body.

Latino families, who made up 20 percent of the student body, responded favorably, especially since most were familiar with school uniforms in their native countries. They and other families were keen to cut the cost of clothing, said Ramsey teacher and frequent Spanish/English translator Zoe Martinez.

Youso said the biggest barrier was parent's past experiences with uniforms.

"Many people didn't want suits and ties that they said would make us look like an elitist private school," Youso said. "That's why we stopped using the term 'uniform' and started using 'dress standard.'"

Still, Mart'nez, a 14-year Ramsey teacher and co-chair of the school site council, said attendance at the task force meetings was low.

"They weren't well attended; only at the very last meeting were there 30-40 people," Mart'nez said.

After the task-force recommendation to adopt a dress standard in spring 2001, another vote was held: of 600 families, 113 voted for the dress standard, and 50 said no.

With that, the site council approved the dress standard but decided to take the current school year to implement the policy --setting up a committee to research clothing options reflecting a relaxed but neat look.

The students

Perhaps the most vocal members of the process were middle-school students, who were overwhelmingly against the dress standard. Jenna Vagts, a 6th-grader who lives in Savage, isn't happy about not wearing jeans or sweatshirts with hoods, to school.

"They have shirt collars and look like a suit that adults wear. And you can't wear jeans -- that's why I don't like it," said Vagts.

As Vagts spoke, five or six other girls from her class surrounded her and contributed their complaints of the dress code.

"There's less diversity with uniforms, sometimes we express ourselves through the clothes we wear," said one girl.

Another chimed in that "they look like Target uniforms."

Recess ended, and the girls dispersed before all could be identified.

Next year

Principal Steve Norlin-Weaver is pleased that the issue is resolved with parents, for now.

"At this point this year, people are at least non-combative. At most they are neutral," said Norlin-Weaver.

He and staff will gear up this summer for implementing the dress code policy. Other Minneapolis public schools reported initial discipline problems with enforcing the new dress codes, but said after the first year, problems died down.

"I anticipate in middle school we'll have issues, with students testing the waters to see what will happen," said Norlin Weaver.