Fifteen minutes before the bell, the school office is crowded with children. They look remarkably alike, and not just because they're equally eager for a promised treat. The girls are in navy jumpers, the boys in matching trousers and white or light blue shirts.
"This is a good day," says Elizabeth Turner, the principal, as she hands out Popsicles. She briefly congratulates a boy on his tie. "We've got 85 percent of the school, maybe more. Children tend to behave, as we all do, as we dress."
It could be a scene straight out of a Roman Catholic school. But this is Tench Tilghman, a public elementary school in East Baltimore. The children are being rewarded not for perfect attendance, but for proper appearance.
More and more urban school systems across the country are asking students to give up the latest fashions for an identical look. From Oakland, Calif., to New York City, public schools are adopting uniforms as a way to turn students' attention from clothing to the classroom.
Unlike in some cities, however, the school dress revolution has taken place in Baltimore over the past few years with little debate and even less dissent.
Three-quarters of Baltimore's 120 elementary schools ask their students to dress the same. A growing number of middle schools, and two high schools, have begun to follow their lead. Nineteen schools in the city's toughest neighborhoods have gone so far this fall as to make their uniform policies mandatory.
Baltimore has avoided protest and any threat of a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union because schools with mandatory requirements will make exceptions for students whose parents want to opt out.
Most schools have voluntary policies, and often they discreetly collect outgrown uniforms for families that can't afford them. School officials might remind children to dress alike, but they won't discipline those who show up in their favorite jeans.
Perhaps the chief reason uniforms have become so commonplace, however, is their surprising popularity with parents, teachers and principals. Although they typically complain at first, even older students often come around.
"I love it. It's so easy," says Ingrid Matthison, whose 5-year-old son, Tevon Graham, attends Tench Tilghman. "Probably it'll get harder when he gets older, but I hope they continue with the uniform, so he can learn this is how we are in the work world."
School researchers have just begun to study the impact of uniforms in public schools, and the results are mixed.
Attendance is up and school crime is down in Long Beach, Calif., which became the first school system in the country to require uniforms in 1994. But a study by the University of Notre Dame found no significant difference in student achievement. Long Beach also was forced by an ACLU lawsuit to make clear that parents could choose not to participate.
A principal believer
For every skeptic who questions whether uniforms bring anything beyond a superficial change in school appearance, there is a principal like Peggy Jackson-Jobe.
At Thomas G. Hayes Elementary in East Baltimore, Jackson-Jobe said she witnessed firsthand how uniforms increased attendance, discipline and school pride. Now that she is trying to turn around Arnett J. Brown, a Cherry Hill middle school that is on the state's list of failing schools, Jackson-Jobe wants her pupils to try dressing alike.
"We're trying to instill in them that this is their school, and that they're here to be about the business of learning," she says.
After polling parents and students, she settled on a uniform that they found affordable and even fashionable: black pants and a $10 black or gold polo-style shirt embossed with the school slogan -- "A high performing middle school where dreams come true." She picked pupils to model the outfits and, beginning this week, pupils will be required to wear them.
Seventh-grader Linae Stackhouse was a fast convert. "I like it. You don't have to pick out [something] at night 'cause you know what you're going to wear. Everybody looks appropriate."
Clarence Shipman, 11, is less enthusiastic. He had to dress in a uniform in elementary school and says, "I finally get to wear whatever I want."
But he agrees with Takira Muldrew, 14, who has arrived at the philosophical conclusion, "It's OK. Everybody else will have to wear them."
Parents often prefer uniforms for their practical benefits: convenience and cost.
Jumpers, skirts and slacks typically sell for $8 to $10, as do the polo or dress shirts that most schools require. But while they might spend $100 to $200 to outfit their children once they've bought a week's worth of uniforms and shoes, parents say they save considerably in the long run. Even if they buy extra accessories, uniforms don't come close in cost to the designer jeans and boots their children want.
"It saves you time. It saves you arguments. It saves you money," says Eric Sligh, the father of Damien, a first-grader at Tench Tilghman. His life would be a lot easier, he says, if only his 13-year-old attended school in uniform.
The first to push for uniforms were families in the city's poorer neighborhoods.
Parents became worried in the late 1980s that their children's obsession with name-brand fashions was not just expensive, but dangerous. Middle schoolers got into fights over $100 Air Jordans, and some high schools banned expensive sneakers after students were robbed of them at gunpoint. Younger children were going home in tears because they had been picked on for wearing cheaper sneakers.
"We were having a lot of fights," recalls Thelma Bond, the parent liaison at Tench Tilghman. "The few who could afford the designer clothes would make fun of others. They'd say, 'You have fishhead tennies.' "
It was too much for parents, under stress walking their children to school past drug addicts and vacant houses. In 1989, they decided to follow the example of Cherry Hill Elementary, which had become one of the nation's first public schools to adopt uniforms two years earlier.
Such a limited selection was available then that parents initially sewed their own, says Cherry Hill Principal Yvonne Jones. Over time, she says, uniforms became "a tradition that we've kept up with great pride."
This year, Cherry Hill was one of the schools to switch from a voluntary to mandatory policy. According to Jones, no parent asked to be exempted.
For all the pep rallies and parental reminders, schools often struggle to keep students voluntarily in uniform. By late spring, many children have outworn their uniforms and cast them aside for T-shirts and shorts.
But the schools keep trying -- and not just in poor neighborhoods. Woodhome Elementary in Northeast Baltimore asks pupils to wear uniforms, and Roland Park Elementary and Middle School, which experimented briefly with them eight years ago, is revisiting the notion.
At Roland Park, some pupils have protested to their parents -- and more loudly to their friends -- since the PTA began its survey a few weeks ago.
"It destroys creativity and individuality. We'd all be the same except for our hair and eyes," says Alex Jansson, a fourth-grader. Her friend Rebecca Taylor, also in the fourth grade, chimes in: "No way."
The response has been divided, according to Sheila Peyrot, the PTA president. At the school playground the other day, objections fell on deaf ears.
"They can be creative when they get home," says Maryanne Pena, who was shocked when her first-grader, Elizabeth, demanded a leather jacket because "everybody else at school has one."
Julia Pretl has a pierced nose, yet she, too, had little sympathy for the students nonconformist desires. She says her 5-year-old daughter, Olive Pretl-Drummond, wants to copy what others wear. Uniforms would be cheaper, she says, and end the morning problem of what to wear.
Her daughter would survive. After all, Pretl wore a uniform in her Catholic school days, and she made it through with a sense of style.