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


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.

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