Dressed for Success

Located in the small historic town of Wadesboro, N.C., Anson County Schools is comprised of 11 schools and 3,900 students. And every day, in every one of those school buildings, at least one or more students were disciplined for non-compliance with the district’s school uniform policy and dress code.

District leaders acknowledged that the policy, in effect since 2005, was overly prescriptive, causing a disproportionate amount of class time to be spent on enforcement. With restrictions such as khaki-only pants, with a maximum of five pockets; no more than two buttons on girls’ shirts; a complete ban on logos; and no color on the inside of collars, teachers were regularly sending students to the principal’s office for uniform infractions. While district administrators and the school board were willing to make changes to what was widely considered an unenforceable policy, first they needed to hear from all their stakeholders.

Asking the right questions

“We didn’t know what the problem was,” said Superintendent Dr. Greg Firn, who inherited the policy when he came on board in 2007. “Was it a policy issue? An enforcement issue? How deep were these negative sentiments? We just knew people were unhappy and something had to be done.”

In the spring of 2011, Firn convinced the board that, rather than taking the drastic step of repealing the policy, they should dig deeper to discover the root cause for discontent by collecting hard data through a well-crafted survey. Firn was committed to taking a proactive teaching approach, raising awareness and sharing information.

“The board was very leery initially about being manipulated into a policy decision based on how they thought the survey was going to be constructed,” said Firn. “One of the indicators of success — and a testament to K12 Insight’s work — is that the survey focused on a constructive discourse instead of giving voice to extreme opinions. The Anson County community came together to solve a problem, not to merely disagree. From my perspective, it was a win/win for everyone.”

Understanding underlying discontent

Conducted during May and June 2011, the survey was open to 7th through 12th grade students, parents and staff members. Questions focused on perceptions of the impact of the standardized dress policy on the school climate, along with enforcement, compliance and the possible impact of a policy change.

A total of 874 people participated, including 525 students, 125 school staff and 224 parents. And the results were pleasantly surprising. While school administrators expected students to say they wanted no policy at all, survey data showed the overall negativity revolved more around enforcement consistency — with just 1% of staff and 25% of parents saying the policy was always enforced — and a clear desire for more flexibility. Specifically, more than 70% of students wanted more freedom in how they could dress, stating a desire to wear clothes with logos, pants other than just khaki, and a loosening of the pocket and button restrictions.

Listening to all voices

Most telling were responses regarding who is responsible for ensuring students are dressed appropriately for school.

“Parents said, ‘We are.’ Teachers said, ‘We have a role in this,’” said Firn. “And students said overwhelmingly, ‘I am. I make the choices. I choose to adhere or not adhere.’ That was a golden response and an ‘Aha’ moment. We realized this was an opportunity to show that the policy itself has flexibility.” Most importantly, all stakeholders who participated felt validated and that their voices were heard.

Should the dress policy be changed?

When students returned to school for the 2011-12 school year, they found a modified dress policy, allowing more flexibility on pants color and number of pockets, along with each school’s principal empowered to make enforcement decisions at his or her school. In addition, the district is now allowing citizens to petition the board with specific change requests, to be reviewed by a feasibility committee.

Implementing a harmonious solution

“We really were able to avoid what would have been an extremely messy policy change,” said Firn. “Getting rid of the policy or returning to something else would have been more divisive than how we handled it. The survey illuminated that the extremes were not the dominant perspective. We were surprised, but also relieved, that there was a rational, reasonable approach to this.”

Who is most responsible for making sure students are dressed appropriately for school?

Since the district reports monthly on all disciplinary actions, leaders have already seen a steady decrease in uniform infractions, particularly at the secondary level, and an absence of non-compliance suspensions.

“Emotional issues like uniforms tend to pit groups against one another,” said Firn. “This created more harmony because groups saw themselves as similar, rather than dissimilar.” And, he added, “Even students’ voices were not so out of alignment with those of their parents and teachers.”