I think we all agree that we’d like to see a reduction of violence and bullying in Philadelphia especially among our youth. One way that the School District has tried to do this is by taking a page from private and parochial schools and requiring school uniforms.
However, research shows that uniforms aren’t the silver bullet here, let alone a useful tool in the toolbox, and it is time for the Board of Education and Superintendent William Hite to eliminate the burdensome constraints of school uniforms.
Board of Education policy no. 221 authorizes each school to create their own uniform and dress code policy. Every public school across the city develops their own school-level plan. Some require special colors, or collared shirts, or clothing with embroidered logos, but no schools are exactly alike.
As a parent of two kids in the district, I am able to afford to buy my children multiple high-quality uniforms in addition to their street clothes. However, many families simply cannot afford that luxury and may only have one uniform for their child which may be well-worn, faded, or tattered or not washed frequently. Furthermore, if the student is experiencing homelessness or is in foster care, they may move schools in the city more frequently. Each school having their own dress code means that the child has new uniform needs at every school they attend.
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The School District recognizes the economic burden for families to buy and maintain uniforms.
The District Office of Grant Development writes grants to help fund raise for uniforms which are then distributed to families who need them. The burdensome process to obtain these uniforms is laid out by the district on their website, and there is a different process for children who are 5 than those who are 6 and older.
The district also suggests schools should solicit corporate sponsors for uniforms, buy in bulk for a discount, or establish a system to trade in outgrown uniforms, which can then be donated or sold at a low cost to other students.
This time and effort are a waste of resources on the district and on the individual school levels.
The district is maintaining the guise that uniforms are leveling the socioeconomic divides. But in a zoomed-out view, school uniforms actually highlight the socioeconomic divisions of public schools that they supposedly eliminate.
In a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education 47% of low-wealth public schools reported requiring school uniforms, compared to just 6% of high-wealth public schools. That 47% of schools are often located in large urban districts with a majority of students of color and have a higher free lunch program, indicating students living in poverty.
On the district level, we see schools like Masterman and Science Leadership Academy with no uniforms but local catchment high schools like Ben Franklin and Furness — which have higher rates of poverty and students of color — requiring them and even threatening on their website “disciplinary action” for failure to adhere to the uniform policy.
Many school leaders and parents have been led to believe that uniforms were a solution to reducing violence and bullying. However, most studies do not reflect a direct correlation of this long-held belief. Instead, we could invest in what does work, like smaller class sizes, improved facilities, more counselors, trauma-informed programs, violence reduction programs, etc. to better our schools and help break the cycle of poverty that so many of our Philadelphian children face.
Ultimately school uniforms were just another Band-Aid instead of a genuine solution to fix problems in education especially in urban school districts like Philadelphia. We should swiftly remove uniform requirements for the 2021-2022 school and get to the real work of improving our schools.
Dena Ferrara Driscoll is a mother of two Philadelphia public school students. She lives in South Philadelphia and works in nonprofit communications and development. @bikemamadelphia