Johnny can read, but he cant get dressed.
Why? Because he cannot find a passable white dress shirt.
It was Tuesday
morning, and he was late for class. He had his books, his lunch, and his homework. But he
was still missing one thing: his shirt.
His school, I.S. 59 in Jamaica, is one of the few public junior highs to participate in
the citys experimental school uniform program. Not only does the dress code improve
the decorum of the school, but administrators say that it also teaches children about life
in the real world.
In this case, Johnny was able to find a shirt that was not stained or wrinkled beyond
his ironing ability. He then put on his tie, and raced down Springfield Boulevard to
I.S. 59 makes for an interesting case study in school uniforms. Since the
implementation of a dress code two years ago, which requires collared shirts and ties for
boys, and skirts for girls, not only is the school more disciplined, but ten percent more
students are reading at grade level, said Dr. Antonio KTori, principal of I.S. 59.
Spurred on by the success of I.S. 59, District 29, and similar programs across the
country, the central Board of Education recently voted to make school uniforms mandatory
for all elementary and junior high school students although there are various ways to opt
out. This decision has sparked a debate in a few Queens school districts, dividing the
boards into several opposing camps.
Those in favor of the uniforms argue that clothes are not only a distraction, but they
are also the cause of criminal activity in the schools.
They contend that eliminating expensive sneakers and jackets from the students
wardrobes will create a more disciplined educational environment. In other words, Johnny
cant read because he is preoccupied by how he and his friends are dressed.
"Once the disciplinary problems of the school have been taken care of, you can get
down to the real business of education," said KTori.
The uniform detractors argue that the central Board of Education is dressing students
rather than addressing the fundamental problems of the system.
"I dont believe there is a relationship between school dress and school
performance," said State Sen. Leonard Stavisky. "The board is focusing on the
A teacher and student at I.S. 59, both required to wear shirt and
Tribune Photo by Manny Patino
In other words, Johnny cant read, and spiffy new uniforms arent going to
make a difference.
Furthermore, many parents and civil libertarians contend that insisting on school
uniforms in public schools is an infringement of the students right to freedom of
"There is something fascist about the whole thing," one teacher told the Tribune.
"We always talk about the value of our diversity, and in this case it is
tantamount. I like the fact that when I look at my class they are all wearing different
In other words, Johnny cant read the Constitution, but his First Amendment
rights must still be protected.
This issue has also become a new front in the battle between school districts and the
"The district is aware that the central board is approving school uniforms,"
said Joseph Quinn, superintendent of District 24. "But we are cognizant of the fact
that this is a matter that has to be decided locally and between the building principal
and the parents."
Under the Boards uniform policy, all students will be required to wear uniforms
every day. However, individual schools and students will be allowed to opt out of the
Schools can vote to be exempt from the school uniform program. Individual students can
do the same, as long as their parents meet with school administrators and explain the
reason for the exemption.
According to Board of Education spokesman J.D. LaRock, these reasons may include
religion, freedom of expression, or just personal preference. "In these cases,
parents will have to adhere to an alternate dress code as promulgated by the school,"
Several individual school boards feel slighted by this policy, because they are being
sidestepped. In Baysides District 26, the board has resolved to defy the citywide
policy, arguing that the central board does not have the legal basis for the program.
"But the community school boards cannot enact policy contrary to that of the
central board," said LaRock.
On Thursday, March 26, members of District 26 will vote on their resolution.
Also at issue is the matter of enforcement. Under the policy, the maximum penalty for
not wearing the uniforms would be a parent-teacher conference.
The other concern for parents has been where will these uniforms come from, what will
they look like, and who will have to pay for them.
Dr. Antonio KTori, Principal of I.S. 59, one of the only
schools in the city that enforces a dress code.
Photo by Manny Patino
According to LaRock, the uniforms will not be different for each school, and will be
manufactured by various companies.
They will, in general, consist of shirts, ties and slacks for boys, and blouses and
skirts for girls. A pants option for the girls is also being considered.
Parents will be responsible for paying for the uniforms, although financial assistance
will be available in many cases, said LaRock.
Many educators, who were unconvinced about the impact that uniforms have on the
schools, change their mind when they visit I.S. 59.
KTori has created an environment in which classical music is played in all of the
hallways, the school bell has been eliminated, and teachers as well as students wear
jackets and ties.
In the two years the students have been dressing up, KTori says the results have
"When I first arrived here, a student was beaten up for his sneakers, and left
barefoot in the snow," said KTori. "Now we do not have these distractions
and can finally concentrate on academics."
In other words, making sure Johnny can read, write, and iron a dress shirt.