Two years ago, almost every Riverhead elementary school student who stepped off the bus the first day of school was wearing a colored polo or long-sleeved shirt, khaki bottoms and flat-soled shoes, all adhering to the district’s new uniform policy.
At the time, school administrators touted the optional program — intended to decrease distraction and build a team atmosphere — as a districtwide success.
But today, administrators estimate that student participation in the program has dropped to as low as 30 percent in some of the district’s four elementary schools. (Exact figures were not available.) And some parents say their children never wear a uniform to school.
Although not actually a uniform, in the traditional sense, the dress code calls for a blue or white shirt or blouse with a collar, but also allows polo shirts and turtlenecks. Students may wear khaki or blue slacks, shorts, skorts, skirts or jumpers. Denim is prohibited.
It was expected that the program would also be implemented at the Pulaski Street School, the junior high school and eventually, the high school. That never happened. And although an opt-out form is officially required for children to wear clothes that do not adhere to policy, many parents choose to ignore it.
Some parents say the program, although great in theory, is impractical.
“For me, it was the money,” said Lenore Rossi, whose son attends Aquebogue Elementary School. She said she has to buy twice as many clothes to keep the uniforms clean and her son refuses to wear the collared shirts and slacks on weekends. He wears the uniform to school only about three times a week now, Ms. Rossi said.
And for some parents, pushing uniforms on the kids isn’t a fight worth picking.
“If she gives me a hard time, she wears whatever she wants,” said Sandy Urban, whose daughter also attends Aquebogue. Her daughter wears a uniform three or four times a week, she said.
Ms. Urban and Ms. Rossi both think it’s harder to make girls comply with the policy because of social pressures.
To address the added cost some parents complained about, the Aquebogue Parent Teacher Organization opened an exchange closet last spring where parents can share hand-me-downs. But only about half the Aquebogue parents interviewed said they’d even heard of that program.
Sarah Bowe, who has two children at the Roanoke Avenue school, said she is disappointed to see participation drop off.
“There really shouldn’t be any reason for people not to get behind it,” she said. “I just think especially in an area like Riverhead, where there is so much ethnic and racial diversity … it’s just a unifying thing.”
Riverhead superintendent Nancy Carney said administrators are talking with elementary school principals to investigate ways to get the program back on track.
“We just had a meeting looking at how we can recommit to school uniforms,” Ms. Carney said, adding that a public school district cannot mandate uniforms. According to New York State law, a school district does not have the authority to force students to wear uniforms or even any particular kind of clothing.
Riverhead Charter School is one of the few public schools that can mandate uniforms because students choose to attend it. Principal Dorothy Porteus said wearing similar clothes fosters a sense of belonging.
“It gives [students] a sense of identity,” she said. “You get away from the stigma of what your income status is since the students social status is not determined by the number of name brand clothes they are wearing.” Ms. Porteus added that instituting a uniform policy is easier than monitoring dress code policies, which can be vague.
Board member Angela DeVito, who sat on the committee charged with drafting the uniform policy, said a major flaw in the program is that not all administrative staff has been 100 percent on board with it.
“There has been no administrative support,” she said. She suggested once again enforcing the opt-out forms and having principals set up face-to-face meetings with every parent who chooses not to participate. She would also like to see an educational outreach to parents and students on the benefits of uniforms and positive reinforcement programs for participating students, she said.
Ms. DeVito ranked the participation at the four elementary schools as Roanoke and Phillips having the highest percentage of students wearing uniforms, Aquebogue being in the middle and Riley Avenue Elementary as having the lowest.
Many of the parents interviewed noted that it is harder to get older students to wear uniforms. Some teachers have pointed out that participation starts to wane during the third grade.
Despite the district’s push to resurrect the program, it appears that whether or not uniforms can work is ultimately determined by how much students and parents get behind it.
“Until it becomes a part of the culture and the norm, it’s hard to motivate kids to wear uniforms,” Ms. Carney said. “We really have to get kids to want to do it.”