SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : A Show of Uniformity : As More Public Schools Adopt Dress Limitations, Campus Fashion Displays Are Drawing Big Crowds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the '60s, Gloria Alderete's mother ironed the skirt of her school uniform by pinching down the pleats with clothespins until the folds hung de rigueur straight.

The uniform resonated no frills, no nonsense: white blouse with round Peter Pan collar. Cardigan sweater. Black-and-white saddle shoes.

It was the "armor" look, jokes Alderete, now principal at Temple Elementary School in La Puente and a former Catholic school student in the same city.

"In my days," she said, "it was one style, and that was it."

Thirty years later, the school uniform is no longer plain vanilla. Nowadays, the look is spiked with attitude--Levi 550 jeans, sweat pants and bicycle shorts are among the wash-and-wear options. Or there's the Ivy League je ne sais quoi-- lace-collared blouses from Nordstrom, leather wingtip oxfords from J.C. Penney. One Monrovia middle school even considered bow ties before parents rejected them as too stuffy.

This fall, four San Gabriel Valley school districts will take advantage of a new state law allowing public schools to require uniforms on campus. Monrovia, Hacienda La Puente, West Covina and Valle Lindo districts will require uniforms for kindergarten through eighth-grade students starting in September. (Hacienda La Puente's uniform policy also includes high school students.)

Parents in those districts are weighing in on the uniform debate more than perhaps any other recent issue, officials said. Fashion shows featuring uniform options are outdrawing school board meetings. Worried parents, who usually don't turn out for votes on budget or curriculum, want their say on plaids versus solids, Levi 501s versus 550s, belt loops versus loop-free.

And big-name retailers are elbowing their way into the once-limited market, opening school uniform sections in their stores and wooing parents via special catalogues and fashion shows. Schools don't require parents to buy from specific retailers but distribute lists of suggested stores with prices of required items. Parents can buy the items anywhere they want, as long as the clothes meet specifications.

Until a year ago, retailers such as Target, J.C. Penney and Nordstrom had no designated school uniform items, although they sold some of the basics, such as khaki pants and polo shirts. Now, 11 of 12 Nordstrom stores in Southern California sell uniform items, including cotton-and-spandex bicycle shorts and polyester-and-cotton hooded sweat shirts. Nordstrom sales representative Beth Turner declined to disclose sales figures but said she has worked with more than 100 schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Turner called the response "unbelievable."

Under the law, which took effect Jan. 1, districts that adopt uniform policies must seek opinions from parents and give six months' warning before requiring the outfits. Parents who sign waivers may exempt their children. And districts must help provide uniforms to students who cannot afford them.

Dozens of individual schools statewide--including more than 30 in the San Gabriel Valley--have had voluntary uniform policies for several years. Others have strict dress codes that ban colors and styles identified with gangs. Now, districts have the authority to go a step further.

Officials in many districts say that uniforms make it more clear who doesn't belong on campus, ensure that students will not be mistaken for gang members and help them focus on academics instead of fashion. Critics say a strong dress code would do the same, without the new expense and the curb on freedom of choice and expression.

Parents had pushed to explore the idea of uniforms in each of the four districts that recently adopted policies. At their request, each district surveyed parents to gauge reaction and got an overwhelmingly positive response.

Then the districts went shopping.

On March 2, a fashion show at Dean L. Shively Middle School drew almost 300 people on a rainy night. It was the biggest turnout in years in the Valle Lindo School District, bigger than the crowd that turned out when teachers redid the math curriculum last year and bigger than the one in attendance when the school board adopted its $5-million annual operating budget.

"It's emotional for parents," said Supt. Mary Louise Labrucherie, whose district has 1,200 students. "It's very tangible, something they can readily identify with."

And it's more fun than looking at numbers.

At Shively school in South El Monte, the student fashion show had the makings of a big event, like a major designers' pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) showing in Milan--but with knee sock-clad models in tennis shoes.

Never mind that the runway was a couple of risers pushed together in the school cafeteria, draped with crepe paper and festooned with balloons. Never mind that the mini-models sashayed and pivoted to soothing Bach melodies played by a teacher on a baby grand piano.

Parents ate it up. They cheered. They took pictures.

Principal Albert E. Crespo was master of ceremonies, resplendent in a crisp navy-blue suit and white button-down shirt.

"Ready to go to the party after school is Zoe," Crespo announced, microphone and script in hand, "wearing a two-piece outfit from Mervyn's."

Zoe, who wore an $18 plaid jumper and $12 long-sleeve white blouse, strolled down the cafeteria's center aisle to oohs and ahs.

"Oh, I like that," squealed first-grader Claudia Millan, elbowing her fourth-grade sister, Carolina, in the front row.

"Have fun at the party, Zoe!" gushed Crespo. He segued smoothly to the next model: "Keeping cool in summer months is Veronica. . ."

Before the show, Valle Lindo officials had mailed price lists to parents from suggested vendors. The range includes Botana & Gomez, which sells a 100% polyester jumper and blouse for $39, and Target, which sells a similar outfit in a rayon-polyester blend for $20. Shively parent Lucy Sandoval, 35, said she originally opposed uniforms because they cost more than what she usually pays for her two sons' clothes. But then the single mother decided the extra expense was worth it.

"It's better, so you don't have to worry about what they wear (and) drive-by (shootings)," she said.

Her fifth-grade son, Arnold Sandoval, pondered the idea of uniforms with a frown.

"Isn't that for armies?" asked Arnold, who wore an oversized sweat shirt and baggy jeans.

Only Hacienda La Puente's policy includes high schools, where students typically are more exposed to gangs. In the other three districts, administrators said high schools were excluded from the uniform policy because older students are more apt to want to express themselves through clothes.

But at La Puente High School, assistant Principal Dyanne Zykwa was taken aback by the students' tame reaction to uniforms.

"When I went to high schools in the '60s, I would have gone wild," said Zykwa, who grew up in Ohio. "We would have freaked (over uniforms). We were tie-dyeing all our clothes."

Senior Aileen Deleon said she wouldn't mind giving up her jeans, bodysuits, T-shirts and Doc Marten boots for school uniforms.

"(Girls) go to school with plaid skirts," she said. "It looks like a school uniform, anyway. . . . I think it looks cute."

Freshman Lena Braga, who wears jeans or baby doll dresses, said it'll be easier to pull a school uniform out of her closet than to spend 20 minutes each morning deciding what to wear.

"People don't have to worry about what to dress," she said. "They won't make fun of you. . . . Everyone will look the same."

But junior Fredy Arteaga said he will ask his parents to sign a waiver exempting him from the uniform policy. He wants the right to keep wearing jeans, T-shirts and flannel shirts to school.

"It's a right we have--to dress (our own style)," he said.

Hacienda La Puente school officials have not picked uniforms for their 20,000 students yet, but the school board mandated the standardized dress in February after a survey showed two-thirds of parents favoring the idea.

In the 10,000-student Monrovia district, each school picked its own look. Bradoaks Elementary School's uniform set includes sweat pants, for comfort and warmth. Santa Fe Middle School decided on traditional polo and oxford shirts, as well as jumpers and skirts in designated colors. Among its guidelines: Pants must be a twill-cotton blend or corduroy. Pants must fit at the waist, not one size too big or one size too small. Pants with belt loops must include black belts. And no belts with initials.

Debbie Kaufman, president of the Monrovia Duarte PTA Council, said the uniform policy includes strict guidelines to ensure a groomed look.

"Some of the parents really believed that by dressing the child in their uniforms, they get in the mind-set, 'Now, I'm dressed for school. I'm ready to learn,' " she said.

Kaufman said she probably will sign a waiver for her seventh-grade son at Santa Fe but not for her fourth-grade daughter at Clifton Middle School.

"Where my daughter is at an age where conformity counts, he'll be an eight-grader, he'll have one year (of middle school) left, and he does not want uniforms," she said. "He feels he should be allowed to wear what he wants."

He wants jeans. So do other kids, which is why parents at Clifton school picked jeans as part of the uniform ensemble, along with traditional shirts, skirts and jumpers. But not just any jeans.

They must be navy blue. They must fit at the waist. They must be Levi 550s or 560s, or brand names such as Arizona, High Sierra and Anchor Blue, all of which look neat and snug, said Principal Bill Card.

"They're a little more fitting and stay close to uniform attire, but, nevertheless, loosen you up a little," he said.

Too loose for some parents.

"When we went out and voted on uniforms, we meant uniforms and not jeans," said Lori Schlageter, 33, who has a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader at Clifton. "They're a little slacky."

Other Clifton parents saw jeans as a compromise between a traditional faction that pushed for bow ties as part of the uniform package and an anti-uniform faction, said Karen Tedei, 39, a member of the uniforms committee. She argued unsuccessfully against uniforms and then pushed for jeans in heated debates.

"We know what our kids should wear and not wear," Tedei said. "It's just another thing of telling us what to do."

Besides, she said, the school could accomplish the same goals without uniforms.

"If they just toughened up their dress standard codes, we wouldn't need uniforms," she said.

Dress codes are already tough, school officials say, prohibiting clothes associated with gangs, such as L.A. Raiders jackets and baggy pants. But a uniform policy also builds school spirit and discourages designer label one-upmanship, said Principal Denise Patton at Wescove Elementary School in West Covina.

"Parents don't want their kids coming home saying, 'How come I don't have the Guess jeans?' " she said.

In West Covina, committees at each school will select uniforms for the district's 6,500 elementary and middle school students. At Wescove, parents selected navy blue jumpers or skirts, and navy or gray slacks with white or burgundy dress shirts.

"I think they look sophisticated," said Wescove fifth-grader Stefanie Salavar.

But fifth-grader Raylene Juarez, who wears Mickey Mouse T-shirts and floral print vests, dreads the day when she has to wear her mandatory jumper.

"They look babyish on me," she said.

Such laments did not escape school officials and parents.

"We want them to feel good, to look good," said Supt. Labrucherie of the Valle Lindo district. "Everybody wants to look good, no matter what age they are."

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