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Uniform Trend Often Out of Fashion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Oxnard’s Emilie Ritchen Elementary School, youngsters show up every day in navy blue and khaki uniforms, dressed by parents who say a buttoned-down approach makes schools safer and students study harder.

But across the county in Moorpark, where Arroyo West Elementary School launched a uniform policy four years ago, school uniforms have gone out of style. Jordache jeans and Polo shirts are back in vogue.

A national movement that started in the early 1990s, the push toward school uniforms has had strong staying power in Ventura County cities with heavily Latino populations. At least 22 west county public schools now require or recommend them, with 15 in Oxnard and El Rio. Last week, Oxnard school trustees approved uniforms for three more elementary schools--Kamala, Curren and Sierra Linda.

At Kamala--where 86% of the students are Latino--parent Rosaelia Magana figures she will save $150 on clothes for her two boys next fall because she won’t be buying expensive jeans and basketball jerseys. That is a lot of money for the secretary and single mom, who was on a parent committee that built support for uniforms. Like many parents, she sees uniforms as a way of weeding out such gang attire as baggy pants and athletic jerseys.

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Plus, there is another reason: Magana grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, wearing a green skirt and tidy white shirt every day. In her native country, school uniforms are the norm.

“Most of the parents agree that coming from Mexico, they should have it here,” she said. “It’s unity and pride.”

Elsewhere in Ventura County, the cultural, economic and safety reasons for turning to school uniforms are apparently not as persuasive.

Several years ago in the Ventura Unified School District, Supt. Joseph Spirito’s push for uniforms was beaten back by angry parents who said the policy would tread on individual freedom. In Ventura, only two schools--Will Rogers Elementary and Sheridan Way Elementary--have tried the experiment, and officials at both say the voluntary policies have drawn minimal participation.

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Two east county elementary schools--Garden Grove in Simi Valley and Moorpark’s Arroyo West--have tried voluntary policies, with similar results.

One of the only people still in uniform at Arroyo West is Principal Juanita Suarez, who grew up wearing a uniform as a schoolgirl in Puerto Rico. But with a voluntary policy, Suarez says, she can’t force her preferences on parents and children.

At Arroyo West, school uniforms are “nonexistent,” said county schools Supt. Charles Weis. His son, who attends Arroyo West, doesn’t limit himself to the suggested school colors: navy blue, white, hunter green and red, Weis said.

The relatively affluent families there, although certainly concerned about education, simply don’t have as many compelling reasons to turn to uniforms as parents in Oxnard, Weis said.

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“The school safety argument isn’t going to be as strong in east county,” Weis said. But “if parents can see their streets are not safe” and gang activity is high, a movement toward uniforms becomes more likely, he said.

Indeed, experts say concerns about safety, not culture, are what make school uniform policies take hold. Although hard evidence is scant, school officials say uniforms reduce such crimes as school vandalism and lead to generally better behavior. And those problems tend to be more common in big cities.

“School leaders in the inner city are much more concerned about gang attire and see uniforms as a way to wash that out of communities,” said Theodore R. Mitchell, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

Other Ventura County elementary schools with uniform policies include El Rancho in Camarillo and Glen City in Santa Paula. Three Fillmore elementary schools launched uniform policies this year.

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At Fillmore’s Sespe School, where 79% of students are Latino, parent advocate John Garnica said he pushed for the policy in part because of his background. As a farm worker’s son, he grew up wearing hand-me-downs, and wanted to ease the discomfort of poor students.

“The elitist clothing label contest was going on,” Garnica said. “This avoids all of that.”

In Oxnard, school leaders point to the Emilie Ritchen Elementary School as an example of success. Located in an affluent north Oxnard neighborhood, the school has an ethnically diverse population: 42% Latino, 41% white, 11% Asian and Filipino, 7% black and 2% Native American. So, Principal Carolyn Banks says, no single ethnic group is dictating policy.

About 90% of Ritchen students wear uniforms, and 10% of parents have opted out, saying their kids should be able to wear what they want. Under state law, schools must waive the uniform policy for families who don’t agree with it.

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Banks says compliance is high because, for starters, the policy is mandatory. Voluntary policies seem destined to fail because given the choice, kids do not comply, officials say.

Also, the school offers students some flexibility: Students can mix and match navy blue and khaki bottoms with white and green tops, or even wear one of the school’s sweatshirts or T-shirts with an eagle logo.

Enforcement is firm. Reminders to wear uniforms are sent home frequently. And when students show up in jeans and other casual wear, they are called aside.

“I didn’t know your mom opted out. Did she?” Banks asks.

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But there are also incentives. At award assemblies, Banks will heap praise on students not only for academic achievement, but also for wearing their uniforms. And finally, the school does everything it can to make things affordable, giving $20 vouchers to 35 or 40 families a year, so they can buy uniforms offered at such stores as Target.

“The benefits have to do with a great sense of school pride,” Banks said. “They walk tall, and they walk proud, with a sense of unity. It accentuates the things they have in common, and diminishes any sense of socioeconomic differences. It’s a bond builder, a leveler.”

Students at Ritchen--especially the younger ones--say they like uniforms.

“It’s part of our school,” said second-grader Alex Brisslinger, pointing to the eagle logo on his school sweatshirt.

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On the other hand, some older students said parental enforcement was what had them in uniform.

“My mom likes it,” said Carlos Garcia, 12. “She doesn’t want me getting into any trouble.”


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