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More Schools Try Uniform Proposals On for Size : Youth: As trend grows, parents and educators debate merits of dress policies at area campuses.

August 07, 1995|CATHERINE SAILLANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Within a year, parents at four elementary schools in Moorpark, Ventura and Oxnard may be sending their children to class in uniforms, following a trend started last year by Garden Grove Elementary School in Simi Valley.

They are only five public schools out of 210 in Ventura County, not a tidal wave of support. But educators say they are part of a movement toward uniformity in school clothing that is growing in numbers here and across the country.

"As an educator, anything that promotes a sense of calm on campus, instills school pride and keeps the focus on academics, I'm all for it," said Ernie Morrison, principal of Emilie Ritchen Elementary School.

The Garden Grove experiment, however, has left parents and educators deeply divided over whether parents and students in the 1990s are willing to voluntarily embrace uniforms.

Mary Lynn Lamp, director of elementary education for the Simi Valley Unified School District, said student behavior has improved since the uniform-optional policy took effect last fall. And participation in the program has been high, Lamp said.

The school will continue the option when classes start in September, Lamp said, but the district does not plan to expand the option at any other Simi Valley schools. The school's principal, Elroy Peterson, and assistant principal, Judith Cannings, could not be reached for comment.

Parent Shelly Mouzis, however, has a markedly different viewpoint on Garden Grove's pilot year.

"It was just a total flop at Garden Grove," said Mouzis, who has two children in the school. "I would say maybe 5% of the students were wearing uniforms by the end of the year. I was very surprised that they were going to continue with them."

Although as many as 75% of the students started out the year at Garden Grove in uniforms, the percentage quickly dropped as the year wore on, Mouzis said. Students thought the navy-blue-and-white outfits were "totally disgusting looking, besides being made out of polyester," she said.

"I think the kids just wanted to express themselves and wear what they want."

It is a problem that schools in Los Angeles County have been struggling with, too. More than 200 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, nearly one-third of all campuses, have voluntary uniform policies.

But one school in Pacoima recently changed to a mandatory policy because dismayed parents and officials concluded that the optional plan simply does not work. Unless a high proportion of students are in uniforms--about 95% or better--students tend to dismiss the idea as "uncool," said administrators at Vaughn Street Elementary School.

Jerry Gross, superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District, said he saw the same attitude when he was an administrator in the Long Beach Unified School District.

One Long Beach school had about 60% of students in uniforms under a voluntary plan. Eventually, all of the uniforms just "faded and drifted away," Gross said. The Long Beach district has since changed to a mandatory policy districtwide and has had success decreasing suspensions and fights on campus, Gross said.

"If you have real high participation, it makes it much easier to defend," he said.

It was with those arguments in mind that Oxnard's Morrison decided to make uniforms mandatory at Ritchen Elementary. Although the plan needs final approval from the school board, students will likely start wearing uniforms in January, he said. The mandatory policy is not absolute. Parents can choose to send their children to school in colors similar to the uniform, but of a different style. Or students can adhere to a strict dress code that forbids tank tops, untucked shirts and sandals, he said.

He expects less than 1% to opt out, based on the experience of other schools with mandatory dress codes, Morrison said.

The state Education Code, as amended last year, permits individual schools and districts to mandate uniforms as long as parents are allowed to either transfer their children to a school where uniforms are not required or sign a paper exempting their children from the rule.

Most schools in Ventura County are moving more slowly, trying out optional policies. Besides Garden Grove, Arroyo West Elementary School in Moorpark began offering a voluntary uniform this spring, said Thomas Duffy, superintendent of the Moorpark Unified School District.

Participation has been good, Duffy said, although he could not say what percentage of students wore uniforms. The optional policy will continue in the upcoming year, he said.

About 80% of students at Ventura's Sheridan Way School, a year-round campus, arrived in navy-blue-and-white uniforms for the first day of school last week, said Principal Trudy Arriaga. Another Ventura elementary school, Will Rogers, may institute a voluntary uniform policy if it converts to a back-to-basics school, school officials said.

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