Windom tries on uniforms

Voluntary uniform policy a response to parent demand

WINDOM — Ask a group of second-graders what they would wear to school every day if they could choose for themselves and this is the kind of response you get: “Karate suit!”

That was one voice — a boy’s, naturally — among a dozen in a group of Windom Spanish Dual Immersion students who met recently with a reporter. They talked about uniforms, but not robes for the martial arts.

In a district where only a handful of schools require uniforms, overwhelming support from Windom parents led the school leadership to adopt a voluntary uniform policy this year. Uniforms may become mandatory next fall.

“If it hadn’t been for the parents, we probably would not have adopted the policy,” Jim Clark, a teacher who sits on the school’s site council, said.

Clark said he was openly skeptical about the need for uniforms at Windom. Some parents also opposed a strict dress policy at the public school.

Still, two surveys of Windom families conducted in the past three years indicated about two-thirds of all Windom parents were in favor of uniforms. Among bilingual and Spanish-speaking families, the level of support was higher, close to 80 percent of respondents, said Tracy Brokering, a former Windom Parent Teacher Organization chair.

“It’s been a big issue with our Spanish-speaking families for quite a while,” Brokering said. “… We have a lot of immigrant families from Mexico, and it’s very typical for kids to wear uniforms in Mexico when they go to school.”

About half of Windom families speak Spanish at home, but it wasn’t just culture that drove the decision.

When asked why they supported uniforms in the surveys, the most common response from parents was that standard dress would strengthen and unify the school. Many also thought putting the focus on academics, not fashion, would improve grades.

Concerns

Only about one in eight Minneapolis Public Schools sites, and only one other Southwest school, has a standardized dress policy. That other Southwest school is Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, and Clark was a staff member there when the uniform policy was adopted about eight years ago.

“At the time there were a lot of problems, and part of it was because it was very difficult to enforce,” he recalled.

That experience led Clark to think a uniform policy at Windom might be more trouble than it was worth. He said academics were little affected by uniforms, in his experience.

Principal Lucilla Yira, who is in her first year at the school, said she “cringed” when she first read the uniform policy. As an administrator at a St. Paul charter school that required uniforms, Yira said enforcing the policy was a near-daily distraction.

What concerned Yira, she said, was the looseness of the Windom policy.

Windom students now have several uniform choices. They can wear red, white or navy blue tops with navy blue or khaki pants. Girls have the option of solid or plaid skirts and jumpers in the same colors.

If the policy returns as mandatory next fall, narrowing the options would make it both easier to enforce and easier for parents to comply with, she said.

Despite her concerns, Yira said uniforms could have a positive impact on learning.

“We’re focusing on academics,” she said. “Not on fashion, not on fads — on academics.”


Acceptance

Even though uniforms are optional this year at Windom, about 80 to 90 percent of students arrive dressed in school colors during the first few weeks of school, parents and staff said.

Some of the second-grade students interviewed for this story described their initial reluctance to give up their regular jeans and T-shirts. But when asked which of them liked the uniforms, every student raised their hand.

“I guess I’m kind of happy with the uniform, because I think it’s better for the school,” Elias, a second-grader, said. “Now, if anybody is making fun of anybody’s clothes, they’ll be wearing the same thing, so they won’t make fun of anyone.”

Several parents said teasing about clothing choices was a real problem experienced even by very young students.

Anna Roman, who has two children at Windom, said she and her husband, Alberto, both were in favor of uniforms. Although Alberto grew up in Mexico where uniforms were the norm for public school students, teasing was the more important issue for him, Roman said.

“He always feels bad about people who can’t afford the better things,” she said. “Kids get picked on. This way they can all have one uniform and nobody will ever know.”

Parents cited other benefits.

Buying clothes to fit the guidelines required an initial investment, but many expected uniforms to make school shopping cheaper in the future. Getting kids out the door in the morning is less complicated.

Even Clark said his skepticism was beginning to fade.

“What I see right now is kids are very accepting of it,” he said. “I’m surprised at the lack of problems.”

“It gives a nice feel,” he added. “It really does.”