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Charter school: Board applies critical thinking to student uniforms

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Should a school that emphasizes individuality require students to wear uniforms?

That debate is going on among organizers of the Coastal Montessori Charter School, due to open in Pawleys Island in August. It isn’t only a question of khakis or jeans, polos or T-shirts. It’s about the school’s mission and about the way boards govern rather than manage schools.

“We have to keep coming back to our mission of authentic Montessori,” said Kristin Bohan, who led the school’s organizing committee before becoming the project manager charged with getting the school open.

The impact of uniforms on academic performance is uncertain, with studies supporting both sides of the issue, she said.

Rob Horvath, chairman of the charter school board, recalled a workshop he attended last year about why charters fail. The speaker said a telltale sign was board minutes that showed discussions about issues like “what color do we paint the sign,” Horvath said, rather than their core mission.

Charter schools receive public money, but have their own governing boards that determine the methods the schools use to meet state requirements. Coastal Montessori will open with 145 students in grades one through six. It will lease a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School for its first year.

Parents who have enrolled their children have asked about uniforms, said Lynne Ford, a board member. Horvath has already heard from vendors interested in supplying any clothes Coastal Montessori might need.

Ford talked with other board members, parents and teachers about uniforms and came up with a list of pros and cons. On the positive side, they would help create a sense of identity for the new school and a sense of pride.

“It helps eliminate distracting clothing,” Ford said. “It also helps reduce peer pressure.”

“A con might be that uniforms promote uniformity and Montessori is about student individuality,” she said.

The Montessori method encourages students to think for themselves and become self-directed learners.

Heather Teems and Rachel Tomovski, Montessori teachers who are also on the board of the charter school, don’t like the idea of uniforms. “Children love to dress themselves,” Teems said. Their need for individual expression increases as they get older, she added.

“It’s all about individuality,” Tomovski said.

Amy Miller, who chairs the board’s marketing committee, said students could still have choices within a range of uniform options. She has talked with other teachers who like the idea.

How the charter board decides the issue could be as important as what it decides. Bohan questioned whether it’s a decision for the board or the parents. Once the school opens, parents and staff will elect a new governing board.

The board is interviewing applicants for school director. It’s important for the director to be involved in the decision, Ford said.

Horvath suggested a survey of parents. The charter board decided this week to get more information.

One parent who attended the meeting said her children had attended a public Montessori school before moving to the area and that the clothes they wore to school reflected their personality.

A school uniform “implies private to me, which implies a bit of exclusivity,” she said. Another parent agreed, but added “it’s not a deal breaker for me.”

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