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To wear uniforms, or not to wear uniforms?

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Bialik student ambassadors at Bialik High School in Montreal.

To be or not to be? This question rears its head each September, not only in English literature classes, but also on the issue of school uniforms.

As long as there are power struggles between parents and kids, liberals and conservatives, hippies and suits, the debate rages on. Kids may switch sides when they grow up and become parents and new generations take up the issue with fresh fervour.

Esther Moyal’s views reflect her roles as an artist, teacher and entrepreneur. “I can’t say my kids liked wearing a uniform, but it was school policy and certainly one less thing to worry about in the morning when everybody’s rushed. Whereas students who don’t require uniforms might feel pressured to be on trend with status brands, I shopped reasonably priced stores like Old Navy for standard polo tops. My children no longer attend schools that require uniforms. Sometimes I wish they did,” said the mother of five.

“As a teacher, I see students who dress provocatively. When students push boundaries, it can be distracting. On the other hand, uniforms limit personal expression. I’ve seen children scrutinized for trying to personalize their uniform by adding accessories.

“Uniforms represent school colours and girls typically wear skirts. Why not update them to offer flexibility – and choice? Some girls don’t feel comfortable wearing skirts to school. We need to have a conversation around what constitutes appropriate, comfortable clothing to respect diversity. Free wardrobe in school definitely creates competition – more so amongst girls, possibly due to messages from the media. In general, girls are judged more than boys based on appearance. That, too, should be a conversation.”

Sean Spector wore uniforms at both Selwyn House and Solomon Schechter Academy in Montreal. “I think it blurs the line between haves and have-nots and also establishes a sense of pride that otherwise comes only from sports teams,” he said.

At JPPS Bialik in Montreal, the uniform has been updated over the years, in order to stay fresh and practical. At the elementary level, it’s a skort or pants. Naomi Blumer, the school’s director of strategic communications and community relations, said that high school students “may push the envelope on occasion, trying to wear skirts a little shorter, but they can always look forward to spirit wear on Fridays, when they can wear T-shirts or sweat shirts with the school name on it. Students are respectful of the uniform and parents appreciative. It’s a unifier. Just as professionals dress for work, it adds decorum. There’s an expectation for how to look and act. Maybe it even improves focus.”

Gayle Clayman’s children attended Hebrew Foundation School in Montreal. “I’m reminded of how amazing uniforms really are. No worries about what to wear or what others are wearing. When my kids put on their uniform every morning, it was a reminder they were going to a place for learning. They looked respectful and never complained. They just knew it as a symbol of education. The minute they came home, they changed into their favourite clothes,” said Clayman.

Helene Green was a secondary vice-principal and principal in the Toronto District School Board before becoming the general studies principal at Tiferes Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish school. She’s currently a consultant at Bais Chomesh, an all-girl Jewish high school.

“I like uniforms. Firstly, they create an equitable environment, so that students don’t feel different from their classmates. Secondly, uniforms ensure that students are dressed appropriately for a learning environment and that their focus is on their academic and social growth and not on what they’re wearing. Finally, they create a sense of community within a school. Everyone is part of the same team,” she said.

“The downside is that uniforms don’t allow the girls to be creative in how they dress. However, there are special days (for example, Rosh Hodesh) when they can wear their own clothes (within certain guidelines) and show who they are.”

Students at Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg.

Joyce Kerr, the elementary principal at Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg, said that, “Uniforms connect students from kindergarten through Grade 12, because they all wear some form of the same uniform. We have many options, almost all gender neutral, enabling all students to feel comfortable and find combinations that work for them. When our students go out into the greater community, the uniform showcases our school and brings everyone together. Students understand that they’re representing the school and feel a sense of pride.”

Some people who were forced to wear uniforms in school have mixed feelings on the issue.

READ: HOW SCHOOLS ARE INNOVATING ON THE PLAYGROUND

A former student of the Netivot HaTorah Day School in Thornhill, Ont., recalls that, “Uniforms made me feel imprisoned within the school and its values. On warmer days, I felt uncomfortable and itchy. Uniforms restricted me from wearing clothing I prefer. The uniform was a green with yellow-striped kilt to the knee or longer, with any white or navy collared top, not above the elbows. Wearing the skirt felt uncomfortable.

“As much as I complained, I didn’t resent it. It made life easier and less stressful. I didn’t need to put an outfit together. My friend group was aware of designer brands, but there wasn’t competition between us. I noticed that some girls in my grade felt left out if they didn’t have Uggs like other girls had. I think students should be free to wear what they want. If everyone dresses the same, we can’t express ourselves fully.”

Many families struggle with their own internal debate over school uniforms, with each generation having a different perspective on the issue.

Vera Center was the vice-principal at Herzliah High School in Montreal, when it started requiring students to wear uniforms. “The push came from parents. The policy was mandated by a committee with representation from teachers, administration and students. It succeeded because everybody felt they had input into the process,” said Center.

“Sure there was resistance. Some girls pulled their hems down when we met in the hall and teachers sent students to my office for various infractions. Eventually, it settled down and I think everyone was happier. Some of the kids were relieved, even though they didn’t want to appear un-cool by admitting it. We had families of vastly different incomes, as well as families with one or two kids and others with four or five. Uniforms removed a lot of stress for kids and parents.”

Vera Center’s daughter, Tamara Center, is the parent to one daughter at Bialik Hebrew Day School and one at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto.

“I’d love it if uniforms were implemented,” she said. “About two years ago, I attended a meeting about it – possibly the most well-attended PTA meeting ever. It didn’t pass. I was surprised at the passion and emotion on both sides. One of the concerns raised was that wearing a uniform could target Jewish children.”

Tamara Center’s daughter, Sarah Spector, attends TanenbaumCHAT, which only requires uniforms for gym classes. When Spector brought home the sweatpants and basketball shorts, her mother was surprised that there were no complaints.

“I’d never wear shorts like this, but it’s fine for gym at school because we all wear the same thing,” said Spector.

“I choose my outfits the night before, because of too much stress in the morning. It almost always feels like I have nothing to wear, even when I have a closet full of clothes. Especially at Jewish private school, there is always pressure to wear the brands in style, no matter the price.”