Books & Looks
BY BRAVETTA HASSELL World Scene Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
7/24/12 at 4:47 AM
McLain Junior Senior High School Principal Darius Kirk loved going back to school when he was a student. It was the socializing and the learning he so looked forward to, and somewhere in there probably getting to show off that first day of school outfit.
Michael Jordan shoes were cool. The pants had to be Polo or Guess. Cross-colors, inspired by the duo Kriss Kross, were big. Celebrity lines such as Roc-a-wear and Sean Jean were starting to emerge, and everyone just had to have some Cole Haan shoes.
"Because when you had you some Cole Haans and some jeans - some nice jeans, Polo jeans, yeah, you thought you were cold-blooded," Kirk said before laughing.
Image mattered, he said. Still does, he added.
But with all of Tulsa public high school students now being required to wear oxfords or polo-style shirts and non-jeans, teenage chitchat come this fall will be less "Where did you buy those skinny jeans?" and more "Did you get that knit polo shirt from (fill in the blank) uniform store?"
Earlier this year, the Tulsa school board voted to require uniforms at the high school level. Before this fall, only McLain and East Central high schools had uniform rules. The previous year, TPS announced its uniform requirement for all elementary and junior high schools. All TPS middle schools have had the requirement since 2006.
A uniform focus
When Kirk was in high school, the time when images and ideas could be instantly transmitted via social media hadn't arrived yet. But when they did, image-consciousness exploded, he said.
"And that's why I think its so good that we as educational institutions really kind of pull that aspect out of this and say, 'You know what, we don't want you to be worried about your clothes, we want you just to come to school to learn,' " Kirk said.
The year TPS started easing into its uniform policy, K. Renee's Uniform Closet owner Karen Renee said she had initially heard a lot of parents were against it. Many were disgruntled but came into her store and began to look at the options, certain that the policy was going to mean spending more money.
Actually, some would later recall to Renee, they spent "far less on clothing than they ever had before," she said.
The policy "definitely makes school shopping much easier," said Kenya Johnson, a mother of two boys - Kenneth, 9, who is entering fourth grade, and 12-year-old Jalen, who starts seventh grade this fall. If anything, Johnson has to make sure she doesn't forget to purchase her sons' regular clothes for the weekends.
Shopping for Kenneth and Jalen comes down to seven to 10 pairs of pants and five to seven uniform shirts for each boy for the year.
Kenneth is still in an age group where kids don't care so much about what they wear, she said.
Jalen, on the other hand, has been squeezing in some individuality where he can, wearing different colored T-shirts under his uniform shirt. In middle school, however, that style will have to be a thing of the past, Johnson said, referring to the school's requirements.
Tulsa's schools went to uniforms because it was cost-effective and everyone looked the same, Johnson said. Clothes are less of a distraction, which is what she wants for her sons.
"There are a whole lot of Michael Jordans, Barack Obamas, Kobe Bryants, Kevin Durants or even (BET founder) Robert L. Johnsons out here walking around in prison or on drugs," Johnson said she tells her sons, "and the reason why is because they became diverted. Something else got their interest."
For grandmother Marsha Corrie, school uniforms take the focus off the external and keep the emphasis on character. The uniforms keep everyone on equal ground, no matter their economics at home, and also, in a way, they prepare her grandchildren for the future.
"When they grow up, they're going to have to - it's sad to say - look a certain way to get certain jobs," Corrie said. "They may be very good people, but because they have piercings and tattoos on their face, people will kind of look like they don't want them here."
Corrie has 11 grandchildren in Tulsa's school system spanning elementary to middle and soon high school. They've all grown up wearing school uniforms, but the eldest of them, 14-year-old Alexis Franco, who enters ninth grade this fall, wasn't too thrilled about the extension of the policy to high school, Corrie said.
Alexis said she was looking forward to wearing regular clothes to school, but she's accepted the policy. She said she's kind of excited about it, actually. Since she can still wear some uniform pieces from previous years, some of the expense of new clothes can be avoided.
"We're not poor, but we're not rich either," Alexis said.
Uniforms then, now
Renee has been selling school uniforms since the late 1980s. She's seen the trend in how girls wear their skirts go from high on the small of their waist to low on their hips like hip-huggers.
The bulky polo and oxford shirts that had a one-size-fits-all feel to them - they've slimmed down and tapered some but still look classic, she said.
The sleeves on knit polo shirts have become a little bit shorter and come in more colors than navy, red, white and black.
Wholesalers aren't making all their girls' skirts to hit mid-calf - knee-length is now widely accepted, she said, and uniform pants aren't of the stiff Sunday-clothes variety anymore.
"These days, kids are happy to see things that wear like a good pair of blue jeans," she said.
And uniform makers are gradually coming around to this, Renee said, observing that only in the last several years has the industry come out of a 1960s mentality.
She prides herself on the line of skirts and skorts she's been designing for about a decade now. They have adjustable waistbands - perfect since kids grow so fast and wear their clothes differently.
Renee said that in this business, it is her hope to meet both the family's needs as well as the vision of a given school district.
"I'm not going to sell them (students) anything they don't feel good about themselves in," she said, adding she often tells clients her store "doesn't do dorky."
In a stage of life when setting oneself apart is thought to be especially important, some young people required to wear uniforms are looking to their shoes to distinguish themselves.
Jalen just has to have some Jordans or Chuck Taylors.
In Alexis's case, her interest is similar, albeit a little more dainty:
"I really want a pair of Toms ... the black-sequined, sparkly ones."
Get the most for your school-uniform money
Here are a few tips to get the most out of your school uniform (and your money).
K. Renee's Uniform Closet owner Karen Renee said that when TPS first introduced its uniform policy, some parents were concerned about spending more money on their children's clothes than they had already.
But "you can get by with a lot less than you think if you keep up with the laundry," Renee said. She also recommends thinking of the outfits like mix-and-match pieces. With a few pairs of pants or skirts and shirts and some alternating, your student can be outfitted all week and their clothes won't be worn out from excessive runs through the washing machine.
"If Billy didn't wear his spaghetti on his shirt, he may not need to launder it."
Here are some staple uniform items that don't necessarily need a wash after one wear:
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 19 percent of U.S. public school principals reported their students had to wear uniforms during the 2009-10 school year. That was an increase from 12 percent in 1999-2000.
Bravetta Hassell 918-581-8316
Tim Schooley picks out school uniforms at K. Renee's Uniform Closet. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World
Earlier this year, the Tulsa school board voted to require uniforms at the high school level. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World
Plaid skirts for school uniforms line the wall at K. Renee's Uniform Closet. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World