"Catholic School Uniforms" in the October issue of Catholic Digest, takes a look at the history of the school uniform and its evolution over time.
In the early 1960s, only about one half of Catholic schools had uniform policies, according to David L. Brunsma in his book The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education. In fact, uniforms were actively discouraged by some Catholic laity who worried they infringed upon parents' rights and stifled individuality.
In American Catholic schools today, many believe the uniform confronts both issues of class and identity. "The uniform is a statement of what we represent, it identifies a person as a Catholic school student, and it puts everyone on the same page," says Sister June Clare Tracy, OP, Manhattan district superintendent for Catholic elementary schools.
At most retail stores, a year's worth of uniform items might cost a parent between $125 to $200 per child. Still, Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, agrees that some families struggle more than others with those costs, and says even uniforms can't erase class lines completely. "There were always some subtle differences where you could tell" a family's financial status by the state of the child's uniform, says Ristau.
Thomas Shipley, president of Dennis Uniforms in Portland, Oregon, says that his company strives for high-quality uniforms that make a parent's investment worthwhile. Because Catholic school uniforms are rarely based on fashion trends, students can wear them year after year.
What of the popular belief that uniforms help generate better student behavior? Brunsma studied the differences between Catholic schools with uniforms and those without, and found few differences in student behavior.
With every uniform dress rule comes one more potential uniform violation, which can make policies difficult for teachers to enforce. But that may not be such a bad thing, Ristau says. Most students strive to distinguish themselves, their individuality, and their dress in small ways. "[The uniform] gives something innocent and harmless to rebel against as an adolescent. You could break those rules. You could be rebellious against socks instead of drugs."
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