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The Impossible Question of Public School Uniforms

One-fifth of American students wear them. But do they level the playing field or just further marginalize poor kids?

Student Daquian Denton wears a school uniform, a white polo with the logo of George Leland Elementary School.
Daquian Denton wears a uniform to attend his K-8 school in Chicago.

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Kenneth doesn’t think much about his school uniform. He is 11 years old, attends fifth grade at a public school on Chicago’s South Side, and wears thick brown glasses that are, his mom says, unbreakable.

He also wears navy pants and a white polo, something he’s required to do five days a week. So does Kenneth’s 7-year-old brother, Steven, though Steven’s pants are streaked with dirt from the day’s activities, and at some point in the afternoon he loses the polo to reveal a crisp white T-shirt beneath. “Steven!” laughs their mom, Hugette Scott. “That was fast.”

It’s after school hours, and the boys are home after a long day — a more relaxed look is inevitable.

“I would like to wear just casual clothes to school,” says Kenneth, though he adds that wearing a uniform doesn’t bother him like it seems to bother some of his classmates. “They just hate the thought of uniforms. They don't like wearing them, so they come in hoodies and things like that to school.”

Why? “They just want to dress differently and not in the same thing every day.”

Does wearing the same thing every day get boring for you? “Yes.” He nods, and again says, “Yes.”

Eighty percent of schools in Chicago — including 80 percent of Chicago Public Schools, known as CPS — employ a mandatory uniform policy. Many different schools fall under the CPS umbrella: neighborhood schools, magnet schools, vocational schools, military schools, preschools, charter schools, and selective enrollment schools, amounting to 669 CPS schools in total. The district’s policy manual stipulates that uniforms can be adopted in any of them.

There’s variance in style between, say, the private parochial schools’ outfits (plaids, jumpers, skirts or slacks, pullover sweaters) and those of charter school students (usually khaki dress pants, sometimes school emblems stitched onto polos), but most kids attending neighborhood public schools must dress like Kenneth and Steven do: in solid navy pants and unembellished polos.

There’s long been debate surrounding how to dress our kids. Over the past 20 years, there have been lawsuits brought by the ACLU fighting school uniform policies, endorsements of uniforms from past presidents, and academic studies falling on both sides of the argument. The trend toward uniforms, meanwhile, has increased ever steadily; by the end of the 2013-2014 school year, one-fifth of US public schools had adopted uniform policies.

Hugette’s boys attended Catholic school, and wore Catholic school uniforms, before transferring to CPS two years ago. Hugette grew up in Chicago. She too went to Catholic school and wore uniforms as a kid, but no one she knew in public school back then had to wear a uniform. By the time her own kids were ready for school, she was shocked by how much had changed.

“I thought there would maybe be a dress code, I can understand that,” says Hugette. “But uniforms? I’m not really for them in the public schools.”

“I challenge all our schools to teach character education, to teach good values and good citizenship,” Bill Clinton said during his State of the Union address in 1996, a few months before he won reelection. “And if it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.”

Before the mid-’90s, school uniforms in America were primarily worn by parochial school students and private school students — which is another way to say rich kids. Those private schools were, and are, tony institutions with history and sizable tuitions, where appearances are everything. We conjure images of Dead Poets Society and their V-neck sweaters and School Ties and their ties.

Whether intentionally or not, private school uniforms denote socioeconomic status, just as standard public school uniforms — i.e., plain polos and pants — do. More students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (the gauge for poverty among school-aged kids) in uniform schools than those in non-uniform schools, which means that uniformed public schoolers tend to be poorer than their non-uniformed counterparts. In Chicago, 81 percent of schools with uniform policies hold student populations that are over 80 percent low income, and 80 percent hold student populations that are over 80 percent black or Hispanic.

The origins of the public school uniform can be traced back to 16th-century England. As sociologist David L. Brunsma details in his 2004 book The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education, uniforms worn by children at the time were “designed to emphasize the lower status of the children who wore them — the charity children.” Later, the British education system would use school uniforms to quash individuality among the working class. “The unstated message was: ‘You are a mass, you are the same, you will take your rightful place among the working mass in the industrial machine.’”

It would take another 150 years or so before widespread use of uniforms in American public schools would be on the table, but the backstory there is not to be overlooked either. Brunsma goes on to lay out a concise timeline of the American school uniform policy in public education, from idea to implementation.

First came A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report published by President Reagan’s special commission on education that introduced the concept of “educational crisis” to the American public. As Brunsma references, “this report, in its most famous line (which would be cited hundreds of times in the ensuing press coverage as well as from the bully pulpit of the presidency) stated that, ‘the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.’” According to the federal government, education needed to be fixed — through more rigorous school testing, through more dedicated school funding, and through more attention paid to mitigating school violence and bolstering discipline. Enter: the introduction of strict dress codes.

Cherry Hill Elementary in Baltimore became the first public school to adopt a school uniform policy, in 1987, and in doing so kicked off the city’s “School Uniform Project.” (The city’s public schools, which are more than 80 percent black and nearly 65 percent low income, are now almost exclusively uniform schools.) Other schools across the US followed. But it wasn’t until California’s Long Beach Unified School District mandated a uniform policy in all of the district’s K-8 schools in 1994 — in a region where over half of students were Hispanic or black — that the country took note, largely because President Clinton made their site-specific policy a national, stump-worthy story.

President Clinton greets uniformed students from Jackie Robinson Academy, a public school in Long Beach, California, in February 1996.
Photo: Cynthia Johnson/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

The month after Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address, the Department of Education issued its Manual on School Uniforms to, as Brunsma puts it, “the nation’s 16,000 school districts advising them how they could legally enforce a school uniform policy.” Clinton continued to weave the narrative surrounding school uniforms into speeches on the campaign trail, largely crediting Hillary Clinton with the idea that requiring kids to dress identically would reduce violent incidents. Long Beach, he noted, had seen overall school crime decrease by 36 percent after the policy took effect.

The youth violence Clinton spoke about was a coded reference to gang culture — which in the Clinton era meant perceived association with so-called “urban” criminal activity, including not just violence, but the selling and using of drugs, too. “Gang membership intensifies delinquent behavior,” reads a 1998 bulletin from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

It’s an oversimplification to argue that black and Latino communities were characterized as America’s “toughest neighborhoods” because the most visible ’90s gangs were either primarily black (like Chicago’s Vice Lords) or Latino (like Chicago’s Latin Kings); it’s far more critical to acknowledge that increased economic inequality and rampant racial profiling amid the escalating War on Drugs meant that communities that were targeted by law enforcement and policy makers were black, Latino, and poor. High-profile national stories about kids killing one another over Air Jordans further contributed to the simplistic narrative that brand insignias and team logos were merely tools for gang recruitment.

Gang structures have changed substantially since. Gangs now, particularly in Chicago, are largely unaffiliated factions far less organized than in years past, the changes in their dynamics creating, according to the Chicago Tribune, “an anything-goes atmosphere on the streets.” Gang violence accounted for almost half of all homicides in Chicago between 2009 and 2012, and recent data put gang membership at about 850,000 nationally, close to the number estimated in 1996 despite dips in the tally in the years between.

For many schools, though, gang affiliation isn’t an impetus for the establishment of school uniform policies. While the Clintons’ rationale in the ’90s hinged on threats of crime for wanted items, the reality today is that most schools adopt uniform policies to prevent bullying over clothing that’s perceived as “less than.”

Crumbling roofs. Busted intercom systems. Overcrowded classrooms. Each month, the Chicago School Board hears an airing of grievances in its beige, windowless meeting room from aldermen, parents, and students throughout the school district. At March’s meeting, a mom addresses the board in Spanish, and a translator follows: “You promise a lot, but nothing’s been done.”

It’s not just the abundance of uniforms in public school that makes Chicago the quintessential city to consider uniforms’ use and value — the school system’s failings also lend context to uniforms’ criticisms.

Chicago Public Schools, as you may have heard by way of Chance the Rapper’s recent $1 million donation and “call to action,” are in crisis. The state of Illinois has gone more than two years without a budget, and in December Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a $215 million funding bill, a decision that precipitated the board of education’s decision to freeze $46 million in school spending. During Chance’s March press conference at Wescott Elementary School, which came after a frustrating conversation with Rauner, he addressed the governor directly: “Governor Rauner, do your job!”

Among the students enrolled in CPS, 37.7 percent are black and 46.5 percent are Hispanic. So when the school board sued the state of Illinois in February, it didn’t just accuse the governor of negligence — it alleged what CPS CEO Forrest Claypool called “overt racial discrimination.”

“The governor says he’s trying to fix a broken system and he may very well be,” said Claypool at the March school board meeting, after citing the grim plausibility of eliminated schooldays, class materials, and after-school programs, all threats of the state’s legislation (or lack thereof). “But there’s another broken system that he refuses to fix, and that he has made much worse: a separate and unequal system of funding education that treats CPS children, 90 percent [people] of color, as second-class citizens, relegated, in the elegant words of the lawsuit filed against him, to the back of the school-funding bus.”

In Chicago, one in three children lives in poverty; 81 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch. While what’s happening when it comes to education and economic disparity in Chicago is, in many ways, specific to Chicago, it’s also indicative of the state of urban centers all over the country. Over half of students in the US qualify as low-income, and nearly half qualify for free or reduced lunch nationwide.

Uniforms present an affordable clothing option, particularly for low-income families. Chains from Walmart and Target to The Children’s Place and Land’s End all offer standard uniforms at varying price points. In 2008, Target became the official school uniform provider for public elementary schools in Chicago, selling uniforms at a discount on a coupon system and providing free uniforms for several thousand homeless children within CPS.

And then there are the local businesses. Schools Are Us has been selling school uniforms to Chicago kids for 22 years. It’s a small space, out on West 111th street in Mount Greenwood — almost as far as you can go on the Far Southwest Side without crossing over into the suburbs.

“It’s a great location,” says the woman behind the counter. “Everyone knows we’re here.”

Schools Are Us has one of the best reputations in the city, selling uniforms meant to last, measuring kids on-site, and offering alterations. There’s a line out of the door for the entire month of August, aka “the busy season.” Shoppers must take a number. In March, though, the shop is empty at 3 p.m.

Shelves are lined with stacks of folded khakis and navy pants in plastic, ranging from $20 to $27 on the higher end and $16 to $20 on the lower end. White and baby blue polos are kept in plastic too, priced at $14.50 across the board. There’s also an array of Catholic school uniforms — jumpers, skirts, red ties — and even the tiniest Catholic school jumpers for American Girl dolls.

Arione Giaves, 17, poses in her Rowe Clark Math and Science Academy uniform.
Arione Giaves, 17, poses in her Rowe Clark Math and Science Academy uniform.
Shakiya Horne, 16, wears a uniform for Chicago’s North Lawndale College Prep.

Though uniforms are meant to be an inexpensive alternative, following uniform protocol comes with significant costs, largely because schools too often discipline students for being out of uniform without taking into account why they might be. The issue of laundry comes up often; many families do not have laundry machines in their buildings. Many parents work two jobs. Many have more than one child. It adds up.

“Imagine if I had to go three blocks to the laundromat,” says Toni Irving, executive director of nonprofit Get IN Chicago. “And have the coins and so forth and tow it in the middle of everything else that you need to get accomplished in a given day or week. And to think that that can be a funnel for suspension, obviously, is problematic.”

Sandra Sosa, a restorative justice manager at Alternatives Youth, one of Get IN’s grantee programs, has seen this situation play out firsthand countless times. “Coming to school without their uniform was not deliberate to ruin the day of the principal,” she says. “But more like, ‘Hey, maybe my parents haven't done the laundry, I don't have money, I can't do the laundry myself.’ And so why hold them responsible for something that's really outside of what they can do?”

There’s a myriad more reasons why students might be out of uniform: Maybe they grew out of something and their parents can’t afford to buy the next size up. Maybe they lost an item and are afraid to tell their parents. If students say they “forgot” their uniform, chances are there’s more to it than that.

Not all schools discipline students for uniform-related infractions. CPS teachers Ali Levin, Lora Shimkus, and Julia DaSilva all have extra uniform pieces on hand to keep their kids out of trouble. Levin has a set of ties that she lets students borrow for the day. Shimkus has a drawer full of extra clothes that she’ll take home and wash, or sometimes give to kids who need them. DaSilva says that her kids’ sweaters are cheaply made and rip easily; she’ll grab extras she finds in the faculty lounge to replace their tattered and torn ones.

“Uniform policy, I’m behind it 100 percent,” says Adam Alonso, executive director of BUILD (Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development), a nonprofit serving at-risk youth in Chicago’s West and South Sides. BUILD anchors in schools and communities with high unemployment, high prevalence of violence, and low educational attainment; these are communities, says Alonso, that are in distress. BUILD will sometimes buy uniforms for families struggling to keep up.

CPS students and BUILD staff play basketball at an after-school program on Chicago’s West Side.
CPS student Tyshaun Jones, center, plays basketball at the BUILD after-school program on Chicago’s West Side.

A member of BUILD’s staff points to a brick building visible outside the conference room window that marks a known corner for drug deals. A stretch of dry lawn separates it from Block 51, BUILD’s after-school location in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. With its lavender walls and student-created art exhibits, it’s a safe haven.

There’s pressure for kids to fit in no matter where they live, but that pressure is heightened in poorer communities where the income gap between those communities and the surrounding areas can be more striking. “I like having a level playing field,” says Alonso. “Everyone is in their khakis and their school uniform shirt. Keep it simple.”

Teachers, by and large, agree. “They're not focusing on those kinds of surface things,” says Shimkus, an eighth grade teacher on the Southwest Side. This is her 25th year teaching in Chicago Public Schools. She knows from experience how important style is for kids and teens, and how much appearance factors into self-esteem. Eliminating clothing from the equation is, she says, “just one less thing.”

Levin, a fourth grade teacher in a charter school on the West Side, adds that dressing as if they’re going to work — dress shoes, ties, and all — helps her kids focus on learning. “Our kids look like little professionals,” she says. “They're really taking education as a serious thing, and they're fit for the job.” Levin hasn’t seen any bullying over uniforms in her three years teaching. “If anything, kids are sharing each other's ties, trying to keep them from getting in trouble for not having their uniforms.”

One less thing for kids to pick on, the pro stance goes, and one less thing for parents to worry about. Though mom Hugette has mixed feelings about uniforms in public school, she recognizes that the policy is easier for parents. “You buy a bunch of white shirts and navy pants, it simplifies the morning dressing process. I do like that part about it. They basically know what they're going to wear, and Steven can dress himself.”

But he can’t necessarily dress like himself. Shanesia Davis’s 7-year-old daughter voices frustration, her mom says, at not being allowed to gussy up her plain CPS outfit with different colors or accessories, like her recently purchased sparkly glitter shoes. “She likes to wear dresses. She likes purple. Well, the uniforms are navy and white. You can’t wear bows or anything where you can express your individuality, and that’s frustrating to her because sometimes she wants to be herself.”

BUILD’s Alonso hears plenty of complaints from kids at Block 51 about uniforms: “Mostly that they hate uniforms, that they wish they could dress the way they want to and show off their style. And the biggest audience is obviously walking into school where you’ve got hundreds of kids, so of course you want people to see who you are and your individuality.”

Childhood and adolescence are key periods of identify formation and development. It’s no wonder, then, that many kids feel stifled by the limited wardrobe and the inability to experiment with style at school.

Shanesia, meanwhile, voices frustration about rules that she feels are not grounded in reality. “When they get to the point of, not only do you have to wear uniforms, but we’re going to tell you when you can wear certain shoes — to me, that’s crossing the line.” Kids may wear snow or rain boots if they walk to her daughter’s Beverly neighborhood school, but are forbidden from doing so if they’re dropped off. “I said absolutely not. We live in Chicago. My child wears the uniforms to a T. You are not about to dictate to me what kind of boots and shoes my child can wear to school in inclement weather.”

A girl in khaki pants wears black ballet flats with black-and-white patterned socks.
Some schools’ uniform policies extend to the shoes and accessories kids can wear.

CPS itself has zero say over whether or not a school chooses to enact a uniform policy, and perhaps more startlingly, neither do the schools themselves. This is left to local school councils, or LSCs. Each school in Chicago has one. While members of the city’s school board are not elected, but instead appointed by the mayor — the subject of a common gripe in the city — parent and community representatives are elected to LSCs, which also consist of the principal, two teachers, and, for high schools, one student.

Out-of-uniform days, when kids can wear whatever they want, are “a huge reward at our school,” says Levin. She and her fellow teachers distribute tokens to students demonstrating school values; if students get 12 tokens by the school-selected out-of-uniform day, they’re able to dress as they please. “I give them out pretty generously. Unless a kid is really actively trying to not get them, I would say for the most part, the majority of students do get them.”

Fifth grader Kenneth’s school operates on a similar motivation-theory policy. “You basically just have to follow directions and behave to earn a pass,” he says with a kind of shrug. Kenneth’s worn school uniforms for his entire educational career; the rules and rewards are second nature to him. At Shimkus’s school, out-of-uniform days are a fundraiser operated by the school’s LSC, with students paying one dollar for the privilege every other Friday.

Do uniforms actually work? Do these rules make a difference? Reports over the past two decades have found that school uniforms yield no proven academic benefit, that it’s difficult to separate causation when it comes to disciplinary improvements since uniform policies usually overlap with other reform efforts, and that there's been no dip in perception of gangs on campus among students.

Besides, dictating kids’ dress doesn’t even begin to tackle the socioeconomic root of the issue. To overlook the income disparity component, say experts, is to both sidestep the primary cause of widespread violence and overemphasize such behavior.

Precious Griffin laughs while listening to music with Ricki Rhodes at BUILD.
Precious Griffin laughs while listening to music with Rickia Rhodes, right, at BUILD.

“I never like talking about education unless we're going to talk about all the other things that affect it,” says Kelly Hurst, executive director of Being Black at School, a nonprofit seeking to remedy inequity in education for black students. She lists those other things: high unemployment rates, low-paying jobs, neighborhoods lacking grocery stores (and thereby creating food deserts), neighborhoods lacking banks (thereby leaving fee-laden currency exchanges as the only withdrawal and deposit options), poor quality of health, poor economic development in communities.

There’s another thing that too many children aren’t getting from the grownups in charge, and it’s not something you can ascribe a statistic to; it’s a mindset, an outlook that adults with authority bring to their interactions with kids.

“We need to change the way we look at students, at young people,” says Alternatives’ Sosa. “Period.”

Sosa shares the belief that uniform policies feed into the further marginalization of youth in poor neighborhoods. “If uniforms are also the way administrators and teachers say, ‘It’s so that we don't have any gang representation in schools,’ you're still assuming and making a stereotype that all youth are in gangs, or that that is something to be expected.”

It should go without saying that kids will find other reasons besides clothing to antagonize one another. While school uniforms remove one bullying prompt, teachers and parents agree that uniforms will never be a panacea, and it’s no doubt unfair to assume as much.

“It cuts that form of bullying down, as far as their appearance and what they wear and what they can afford,” says eighth grade teacher Shimkus. “But there's still that social element. The clothing isn't the focus, but there are other things that they still pick on each other about.”

Fights are pretty commonplace in Kenneth’s fifth grade class. “They fight almost every other day at school. The kids don’t like each other. They don’t get along,” he says. Sometimes the fights are physical. Sometimes the fights are verbal. Sometimes they involve profanity. “Sometimes it gets so out of hand that they have to have security come into the room.” Kenneth ignores it when that happens; it’s too frequent of an occurrence to pay it any mind.

Kenneth’s school uses an off-duty police officer as a security guard. Other schools utilize an even stronger police presence. Alternatives Youth, which brings youth development programs and behavioral health services to Chicago’s public schools in underserved communities, works directly with police officers stationed in schools with the aim of improving those interactions.

“Many schools function like a separate police station,” says Alternatives’ Kirsten Rokke, director of resource development. “They have the ability to book and process students while they’re at school without even leaving the building.”

School Resource Officers, or SROs, have existed in schools nationwide since the 1950s, but their numbers have increased. Don’t bother checking with the National Association of School Resource Officers for the current stat — “Nobody knows how many SROs there are,” reads the site’s FAQ, though it shares a 2015 Department of Education report stating that 30 percent of schools participating in the survey had at least one SRO. Baltimore School District, on the other hand, has its own police department, the Baltimore School Police.

Hurst spent 15 years in Springfield, Illinois’s public school system, first as a teacher and then as an administrator, in six different schools. During that time, she became increasingly aware of the disproportionate disciplining of black and Latino students over white students. Penalizing sagging pants, for instance, disproportionately affects black males. Hurst also observed how white students were removed from classrooms for visible behavior, like hitting another student, while black and Latino students were often sent to the principal’s office for invisible transgressions. Having an attitude. Acting insubordinately. Supposed “misconduct” that’s entirely subjective.

“I tried bringing those issues up,” says Hurst. “And then I realized I was working in a racist system.” She raises the point that when Brown v. Board of Education integrated white schools, black schools were shuttered. In the 11 years after the landmark ruling, 38,000 black teachers and administrators lost their jobs. Today, 82 percent of teachers in the US are white.

Dwajuan, 15, wears a hoodie under his Michele Clark College Prep polo.
Dwajuan Dent, 15, wears a hoodie under his Michele Clark College Prep polo.
Latee Smith, 16, in his Marshall High School uniform.

American public schools are now facing rapid resegregation due to the ever-expanding wage gap alongside inequitable government policy and funding, with three-fourths of black and Latino students attending school in areas of concentrated poverty.

The mental images some uniforms evoke are also not to be discounted. Hugette’s sons, for instance, wore khaki pants and navy blue shirts at the previous CPS school they attended. “I just didn’t like the combination,” she says. “I felt like the khakis were reminiscent of juvenile hall or something, or work pants.”

Shanesia is even more direct. “Speaking for the young boys and the men: They go through this system, they come out, they get passed through because no one wants to deal with them, they hang out on the street, they become initiated into gangs and then they go from the school institution to the prison institution — and what are they wearing? Uniforms.”

She lists a handful of the curricula missing from many kids’ educational experiences: arts programs that teach kids how to express themselves, home economics classes that teach kids how to save money and pay taxes, mentorship, basic literary skills. “I can’t tell you how many people I grew up with graduated high school and don’t know how to read,” she says. So when you tack a uniform policy onto an institution that might discipline you inequitably and fail to prepare you for adulthood, it’s not a far stretch to look at school as an unfeeling apparatus that mandates your clothing — and prison as the same.

This is not a question of intention on the part of uniforms, or schools. It’s a matter of, in some cases, unintended effect.

“I think there are some latent pieces of racism that go along with it,” says Hurst of uniform policies. “We [subconsciously] expect this militaristic, everyone-falls-in-line sort of modality that will carry over into the prison system. Which again, we in the education system are responsible for. We are responsible for disciplining kids disproportionately, or having police in the building that start to arrest children, and then they start to get points in the juvenile justice system, and then... I don't even have to draw the rest of the line. There it goes. There's our prison pipeline right there.”

All uniforms are not created equal.

There’s another uniform style, albeit one that’s somewhat novel in the sphere of affordable education. Think of it as the prep or boarding school approach, but one that carries a unique meaning for the community it serves.

It’s the jacket and tie — in public school.

Urban Prep Academies is a charter school network, primarily funded by CPS, operating on three campuses in three underserved Chicago neighborhoods with concentrated violence and concentrated poverty: Englewood, Bronzeville, and the Near West Side. The school reports an 85 percent poverty rate. And its student population consists solely of young black men.

“As a black man, I had seen throughout my entire life this lack of innovation ideas around what society should be doing in order to positively impact this population,” says Urban Prep’s founder and CEO Tim King. “It seemed that many of the things that were happening in our city and our country really were geared as a tax on black males, not solutions to try to help black males, or at the very least treat black males with respect, dignity, equity, and fairness.”

The first location opened in 2006, the second in 2009, and the third in 2010, “laser focused,” as King puts it, on serving young black men. “Education is the key to economic empowerment and advancement for any population,” he adds. “So I thought, okay, we'll create this program that's going to be focused on this population around education, it's going to improve the education outcomes, get more black men into college, get more black men with college degrees in tough communities. That's going to have a positive, long-term impact on those communities, on our city and our country.”

Every graduating class at Urban Prep has seen a 100 percent college acceptance rate, though that is just one battle won; many students face further challenges once they enter higher education. On April 27, all 230 graduating seniors donned baseball caps to announce their chosen colleges at Urban Prep’s annual senior ceremony, Signing Day, held in Daley Plaza.

Urban Prep puts a lot of stock into ceremony, particularly when it comes to dress. The uniform consists of khaki slacks, white shirt, black or brown shoes, black or brown belt, black blazers bearing the Urban Prep crest, and a red uniform tie — the blazers and ties are issued to students by the school. Freshmen are presented with their blazers in a special ceremony called Convocation that, despite its name, kicks off the start of their educational careers at Urban Prep. Students of the week are gifted gold ties throughout the school year for demonstrating outstanding work in and out of class. And when seniors are accepted to college, they get to replace their red ties with red and gold striped ties during an assembly called On to the Next.

“I mean, you'd think we were giving them a check for a million dollars,” laughs King. “They want these red and gold ties, they aspire to getting these red and gold ties, they put pressure on their classmates, ‘Man why don't you have your red and gold tie? You know Urban Prep get into college!’ That's a real positive kind of peer pressure that happens.”

Urban Prep students in their uniforms — including seniors’ signature striped ties — and college baseball caps on Signing Day last year.
Urban Prep students in their uniforms — including seniors’ signature striped ties — and college baseball caps on Signing Day last year.
Photo: Urban Prep

King was just as intentional with Urban Prep’s uniforms as he was with its population and communities served. He believed that his students’ self-esteem would be enhanced by dressing up, and that dressing up would encourage them to approach school as seriously as if it were their jobs — pretty standard reasons for uniforms, especially when it comes to prep schools. But there was something more.

“Our students, being young black men, are going to be treated a certain way simply based on the way they look,” he says. “I knew from personal experience that if we change what they're wearing, that that would have a positive impact on the way people treated them.

“There's an African proverb: If you want the dance to change, you have to change the music. I wanted the dance to change for these young black men, so I knew I had to change the music, and that meant creating an environment which was unlike anything that they had experienced before. And part of that environment was creating a school where you had to wear a jacket and a tie every day.”

Those ceremonies, celebrating blazers and ties and more ties, seem to imbue the garments with a sort of magic power. Families cheer and cry and snap photos with iPads and phones at Convocation — before a single exam is taken or essay written. Students covet the gold ties, and collect them as if they were trophies. Urban Prep’s slogan is “We Believe,” and the magic might just be that these young men, perhaps for the first time, believe in themselves.

Dashawn Cribbs graduated from Urban Prep Englewood Campus last year; he’s now a freshman at Georgetown University. “The blazer changed me, and it changed me for the better,” he says, adding that his time at Urban Prep, and his time inside the Urban Prep blazer, instilled in him a confidence and work ethic he didn’t know before high school. “The blazer is like Superman's cape or something.”

“It really is transformational,” says King. “It really changes the manner in which the world views them and the way they view themselves. And that is really rooted, quite simply, in some fabric. Some material.”

But it is just fabric. It is just material. Can a uniform really carry that much weight?

This past winter break, two Urban Prep West Campus students were shot and killed a week apart in East Garfield Park. Yuri Hardy, a 19-year-old senior, was shot while walking with teammates after a dance competition; Malik McNeese, a 16-year-old sophomore, was killed in a drive-by.

Malik’s mother requested that he be buried in his Urban Prep uniform.

A uniform can inspire pride — in your community, and in yourself. Only then can that transformational power King spoke of be achieved.

“I had an identity,” says Cribbs of graduating from Urban Prep. “Before, I didn't really have an identity. It helped me become who I am. It made me be able to step into a room and say, ‘Hey, my name is Dashawn Cribbs. I am an Urban Prep alum.’”

He speaks about his high school experience and everything about it that made his adolescence unique: that classmates refer to one another in and out of school as “brothers,” that students identify themselves in class by their last names (in Dashawn’s case, he went by “Mr. Cribbs”), that amid four moves in high school between his dad’s and his mom’s he was able to remain at the Englewood campus all four years. High school is, for many, the time when we “find” ourselves. For Dashawn, the clearest visual representation of his identity formation is that uniform.

“It is very much an expression of who an Urban Prep man is,” says King. “One of the criticisms of uniforms is that it somehow keeps young people from being able to be creative, and being able to express themselves. But somehow the Urban Prep uniform is actually self expression.”

A uniform doesn’t need to be a jacket and tie to accomplish that, though.

Chase Ervin wears navy pants and a royal-blue polo bearing his school’s emblem as part of his uniform. The 14-year-old eighth grader lives on the West Side and attends BUILD’s after-school program. Recently, he placed in BUILD’s public-speaking contest and won $250 in scholarship money. On this particular day he’s changed out of his uniform into a neon-green T-shirt and jeans. He says when he’s out of his uniform, “It makes me feel more free. Because now I know that I ain’t got somebody watching over my shoulder.” But that doesn’t mean he loathes his uniform. He’s proud of it.

“If somebody else sees me on the street, they know I go to this school rather than just thinking I'm an outsider, or that I don't go to school at all,” says Chase. “People always go about what you're wearing, or how you act.” He likes that the royal blue of his shirt distinguishes him as an eighth grader, no longer a little kid and less than a year away from high school. He likes that the emblem tells the world that he attends a STEM school. And he likes that when his class behaves well on a field trip, strangers think positively about his school.

“We can actually show that our school is worth more than what people think because of the neighborhood we’re in,” says Chase.

Does he feel like he has something to prove?

Chase nods. “We can be more and we can exceed more than people’s expectations.”

Is that important?

“Especially, yes. Because I don’t want people always thinking, ‘Oh, he’s an African-American child, he’s growing up in this place, he’s not going to make it far in life.’”

A school uniform can be battle armor. It can also be an invisibility cloak, protecting against bullying. Or it can become a flashing target — one more thing to discipline, one more way to deepen inequality. Intentionality and specificity are important. What’s the uniform’s purpose? What’s the uniform’s goal? It can motivate the student who wears it to bring their best self to school and forge an identity that will take that student beyond graduation — but only when that student feels supported, and knows the uniform has their back.

Dashawn says that a common phrase heard in the halls of Urban Prep’s three campuses is “Respect the crest on your chest.” In that way, the blazer is a part of them, and a part of him.

Stephie Grob Plante is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Emma Alpern


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