HALL MONITOR — Uniformity, or spirit?

February 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

Word on the street is that Milwaukee Public Schools will bring a second big reform item to its board for approval later this month.

The first, approved in December, was a change to the high school calendar so students would begin mid-August and finish by Memorial Day.

This second reform, part of a suite of ideas Superintendent Darienne Driver unveiled last fall, is mandating uniforms in all MPS schools. Driver has said MPS loses some students every year to private or charter schools because parents want their children in schools with uniforms because parents often see uniforms as a sign of a safe school.

Not every parent feels that way. At Bay View High School this August, we got calls from parents asking if we required uniforms, hoping to transfer their children out of Pulaski or Bradley Tech where those schools instituted a uniform policy this year.

Should the uniform policy pass, any MPS school could opt out through its school governance council, the board of teachers, parents, and administrators that sets priorities and reviews school budgets. Schools would also have latitude to say what, specifically, is meant by “uniform.” In any case, approval of the plan would likely send seismic ripples through the hearts and minds of the city’s parents, children, and, I suppose, Walmarts.

I kind of like the plan. Readers of this column will remember that I am pretty excited by Driver’s term to date, and readers of my other writing online will remember my initial support for the reform ideas she proposed.

But I want to use this space to qualify my support of the uniform plan, to explain the “kind of” in the last paragraph. It starts with an argument I have made many times, including here in the Compass — see my September 2013 column “Students in Motion,” for example.

It goes like this: Milwaukee’s decades-old status as the nation’s broadest education marketplace has served two generations of students, now parents themselves, who lack investment in a school community. Consequently their children lack school spirit.

When a Milwaukee parent can send a child to any one of 300-plus schools in a half-dozen communities, the incentive to find one and love it, own it, and really commit to it is very low. For a child, when teachers don’t impress you or administration holds too strict a line, the incentive to switch schools is very high.

Every year in Milwaukee, data tell us, about a third of students change schools when they don’t need to. It might be mid-year; it might be between fourth and fifth grade. It might be because parents have moved across town; it might be because a student was caught with a knife in his pocket. It might be because of low grades; it might be because a school just can’t meet a student’s special education needs.

Never is it because some other school’s got spirit, no matter what the cheerleaders may chant at a basketball game.

Uniforms could possibly  change that.

Research on uniforms in public schools shows mixed results — decreased academic success sometimes, increased attendance other times, and ambiguous effects on teacher retention and morale. This is partly because every district is different, but mostly because not many public schools or districts require uniforms.

Uniforms are, indeed, associated with certain kinds of private schools — religious schools and fancy prep schools, for example. In schools like that, the uniform often takes on a metaphorical meaning, not merely a sartorial one. That is, those schools expect their students to act, think, and simply be more uniform.

I expect nothing of the sort from the students in my MPS classroom. I oppose, as a general pedagogical matter, bland uniformity among what should be a group of vibrant and quirky and unique individual students.

But spirit? I want that! I want the students who walk my halls and grace my classroom to feel like they belong there.

What if, instead of mandating uniforms, we challenged students to don school-spirit wear instead?

School-branded t-shirts, hoodies, old football jerseys, and tee shirts in school colors could be the ideal middle ground between uniformity and free expression. And it could enhance students’ sense of school spirit and pride.

A lot of teachers have favorite places in their schools — staff lounges, classrooms with great views of the lake or sunsets, the doors to the parking lot.

I have a favorite spot at Bay View High School — a few square inches on the bottom step of the stairway just outside my classroom door. The terrazzo tread has borne a hundred years of adolescent footsteps and what was once a sharp right angle at the intersection of rise and run has worn to a soft curve.

Making all of my students wear the same polo shirt every day won’t do anything to help them feel the weight of history that I see on that stair every day. I don’t entirely know if mandatory “spirit wear” will do the trick, either, but I look forward to giving it a try.

Jay Bullock appreciates the quirky kids in his English classes at Bay View High School and tweets as @folkbum.

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