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It’s one of those boring, unspoken rules of adulthood. If we want to act the part, we have to dress the part.

If we want a job, we can’t show up to the interview wearing shorts and sandals. If we want to be treated professionally in a board room, we can’t show up in a ratty T-shirt. These are all lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

Even now, I don’t wear a shirt and tie to work nearly as often as I should. But when I do, I somehow feel more organized, a little more like I belong in the professional world.

If a small thing like clothing can help adults feel more productive at work, it’s worth considering whether it matters for kids in school.

Question: What’s the story with uniforms at public schools? They seem to be popping up more and more often, even at the elementary level, where it seems like adherence to more general dress codes is less of a problem than in the upper grades. – Liz Flynn, San Diego Unified parent

Hi, Liz. Your observation is correct. Principals at a handful of schools in the district see benefits of school uniforms.

There’s a more general, district-wide standard that calls for a certain “neatness of dress” when students come to school. This rule applies to basic stuff like wearing shoes and presentable clothes, and taking care of personal hygiene. Students can be sent home if they’re not decent.

Beyond that, district policy allows schools to adopt policies that prohibit gang apparel – however the school defines that – and to require students to wear uniforms.

A few other rules for schools that want to require uniforms: They have to give parents a heads-up at least six months before incorporating them; they can’t penalize or discriminate against a student who doesn’t wear one; and they have to help out financially if a student can’t afford one. (Otherwise you’re entering sticky legal territory by requiring fees for an education that’s supposed to be free. And former attorney and district gadfly Sally Smith will come after you).

Uniforms have been part of the private school landscape since forever, but stats show a growing number of traditional public schools are also buying into the idea. In fact, 20 years ago, Long Beach Unified became the first urban school district to mandate a district-wide uniform policy for K-8 students.

Educators up there – including former San Diego Unified Superintendent Carl Cohn – thought the policy alleviated gang tensions and put low-income and wealthy students on a more equal playing field. Not everyone loved it. After one parent sued the district for violating his kid’s freedom of expression, the district allowed for parents to opt out of the policy. Nowadays that provision is required by state law.

A San Diego Unified spokesperson didn’t know offhand how many schools in the district require uniforms, but a search of the district’s website turned up at least a dozen.

At Barnard Asian Pacific Language Academy, a Mandarin immersion school in Mission Bay, Principal Edward Park says that uniforms foster a sense of pride and school spirit. Students there wear polo shirts with a cute little panda on them, the school’s logo. Boys wear khakis, gray or black pants or a nice pair of jeans. Girls can wear pants or skorts – shorts that are covered with a panel to look like a skirt. (And yes, I did just learn what skorts are.)

“The uniforms give students this sense of belonging,” Park told me. “And I think subconsciously it puts them in a certain mindset that helps them come to school ready to learn.”

If students don’t want to purchase the logo polo, which runs $11 to $15, they can wear a blank polo, as long as the colors match the school’s. Park says the uniform is actually a cheaper option for parents, because they don’t have to outfit their kids with the hottest labels. Plus, this way, clothing is less of a distraction so kids can focus on learning.

A lot of charter schools are also big on uniforms, which seems to factor into a larger belief that sweating the small stuff creates a more disciplined and rigorous school culture.

At Skyline’s O’Farrell Charter School, for example, students who don’t show up to school wearing their uniforms can face disciplinary measures. They might have to stay late on a Friday or come in on a Saturday for the infraction. (Traditional public schools aren’t supposed to do this, but Dean says O’Farrell parents agree to these rules before kids enter the school).

Uniforms at O’Farrell are similar to those at Barnard. Students wear khakis and polos, with different colors for elementary, middle and high-school students. High-schoolers there have a little bit more freedom when it comes to dress. Any student who has trouble purchasing the required uniform can get assistance from the school.

“I’m just convinced that the uniform really sets the tone right off the bat for coming to school to learn, and what’s expected of the student,” said Jonathan Dean, the school’s principal and superintendent. “It alleviates a lot of problems. You don’t have the identification of gang colors, or the bickering between the haves and the have-nots.”

Dean says uniforms help create an identity and positive school culture, which impacts behavior and, in turn, grades. O’Farrell was recently named a finalist for a national award, based on its test scores and percentage of low-income students – which Dean credits to O’Farrell’s culture.

So do school uniforms lead directly to achievement gains? That’s tough to answer. But we hear a lot about cultures in the education world – the “college-going” culture or “culture of excellence.” And clearly, a lot of school leaders think what students wear is a part of that fabric. Of course, whether students think uniforms are as magical as administrators do is another story.

The Local Ed Scene

Yes, San Diego Unified is still trying to strike a deal with the teachers union, just as it has been for the last 10 months. And yes, they’re still stuck on class sizes and teacher pay raises. Last month, the two parties declared an impasse, which means a state-level mediator will have to step in and help the two parties negotiate.

At this week’s school board meeting, the union showed up in full force, and speakers one by one tried to shame Superintendent Cindy Marten into meeting their demands.

Earlier this week, the U-T compared teacher salaries countywide. One takeaway is that starting salaries in San Diego Unified are about average compared with teachers in the rest of the county, but the district offers one of the most generous health benefit packages. Compensation for veteran teachers in the district isn’t as impressive as what their peers get in neighboring school districts, according to the U-T.

“At issue is how much of a raise San Diego Unified can afford to give teachers,” wrote the U-T.

That question might not be quite right. Consider that the district is still facing a $70 million structural deficit, and will have to contribute more than it expected to the state’s pension system in coming years. It technically can’t “afford” any extra expenditures.

So perhaps the better question is: What programs will have to be cut if the district meets salary demands? This isn’t to say teachers don’t deserve a raise.

But in the past, this type of discussion hasn’t happened before negotiations were finalized. It’s unlikely the district will say outright what cuts will be made for the coming year.

Instead, the cuts might look a little like what happened to English-learner support teachers last year when the district needed to come up with cash. Those positions were cut, and resource teachers were made into full-time regular teachers. The district cast this as a positive, saying now all teachers will be prepared to help English-learners.

That’s how cuts tend to play out – program cuts are spun into positive changes. That’s because the district wants to be all things to all students, which is financially impossible. So if the district does meet the union’s demands for higher pay, it needs to be honest about which existing programs the money will come from.

Bonus: Ladies and gentlemen, San Diego Unified school board member Kevin Beiser, who doesn’t seem to be on bad terms with the union at all.

Kevin Beiser. Your @sdschools board member who’s in the middle of negotiations with the teachers union. pic.twitter.com/T0vJ9NLdYb

— Mario Koran (@MarioKoran) March 27, 2015

Ed Reads of the Week

Virginia tops nation in sending students to cops, courts: Where does your state rank? (The Center for Public Integrity)

In the past few years, mounting data and research have shown how school disciplinary policies have a greater impact on black and Hispanic students.

The numbers are concerning, and worth a close examination. But they don’t tell us the whole story about the forces behind these trends.

A few recent stories – including this one about the juvenile justice system in Florida – are taking it up a notch and providing important insight into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

In this story, the Center for Public Integrity takes us on a trip to Virginia, where schools refer more kids to law enforcement agencies than any other state. You can also see how California stacks up.

Is Neighborhood-based Education Liberal? (New York magazine)

Jonathan Chait takes a quick look at neighborhood-based schooling, which is generally supported by teachers unions. Chait questions whether the concept is truly as progressive as it’s made out to be.

The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a questions about how your local schools work? Submit your question here, or email me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org. I just might tackle it in next week’s edition. 

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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