New Kensington-Arnold considers stricter dress code
Khaki pants and polo shirts could replace baggy jeans and hoodies next school year at New Kensington-Arnold School District.
A committee of school board members, administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students gathered Tuesday to discuss the idea of strengthening the dress code — possibly to the point of requiring all students to wear fitted khaki pants and plain, collared shirts.
Mark Holtzman and Mary Ann Plance, principals at McKeesport Area High School, said the implementation of a similar dress code last year has been part of a series of improvements that have helped to turn around their troubled school.
“This isn't going to fix everything,” Holtzman said. “But I can tell you it adds to the productivity of the school.”
He presented an array of statistics to the New Ken-Arnold group, showing how disciplinary actions and fights had decreased dramatically while attendance and test scores have improved.
“I didn't want to look at one more pair of underwear, one more kid looking like they were going to a club,” Holtzman said. “We were tired of pulling out the ruler for shorts and skirts.”
Holtzman said they anticipated the new dress code would be met with resistance, so they tried to “talk up” the benefits with students and parents the year before it was implemented.
At the beginning of the school day, McKeesport has a large contingent of staff at the high school entrance to greet students.
Students found in violation of the dress code is directed to an area where they can either wait for parents to bring replacement clothing or select an item from stock the school keeps on hand.
Holtzman said students aren't otherwise punished unless they become disrespectful or cause other problems.
Given the economic difficulties of McKeesport's community — 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches — Holtzman said they work with families to ensure students have proper clothing.
But administrators noted requiring a limited wardrobe likely would ease the burden of shopping for school clothes.
Holtzman said the keys to implementing a tougher dress code were in not presenting it as punishment for students, getting teachers on board and being consistent in enforcing the rules.
It was the last part especially that New Ken-Arnold officials fear will be a problem in their district.
Board President Bob Pallone said the existing dress code isn't properly enforced, especially at the high school.
Several people noted that not all teachers and administrators enforce the code the same way.
Some noted there were vagaries in the policy — such as whether students can wear hooded sweatshirts as long as the hood is down, or if hoodies are entirely prohibited.
Likewise, they noted leggings usually are permitted if a dress or tunic reaches a student's thighs, but several people said they've seen girls of all ages wearing leggings with a top that doesn't extend past the waist.
Board members Marilyn Claassen, who is leading the review of the dress code, and Regina Namey said they'd like to see better enforcement this school year while they create a policy similar to McKeesport's for next school year. Drafting a new policy likely will involve ongoing committee meetings until the new policy is ready for approval by the full school board.
Junior Brittany Daniels of New Kensington said she'd welcome a stricter dress code that would remove distractions from the school day.
“I don't want to see another female student's stomach or cleavage,” said Daniels. “I don't want to see your underwear through your leggings.”
Her mother, high school security monitor Valerie Daniels, said she sees too many students in tight leggings and sheer shirts.
“If we move in this direction, it will be easier,” Daniels said of enforcing the dress code.
Parent Tonya Pryor-Norman, a school board candidate, said she supported both enforcing the existing policy and revising it.
“(Students) will be able to focus on their education,” she said.
Valley Middle School Assistant Principal Todd Kutchak said he worked at Clairton City School District when they implemented a similar dress code, which he said was successful.
Superintendent John Pallone said Jeannette City School District also adopted a similar code.
“It's doable,” Pallone said. “If it can work in Jeannette and it can work in McKeesport, it can work in New Kensington and Arnold.”
Alex Novickoff, a district teacher and basketball coach, said there could be other benefits to a stringent dress code. He noted he wore uniforms to school and work for 17 years, between his years at Catholic school and in the Navy.
He said not worrying about how your clothes match up and being well groomed can help with student dignity.
“It does raise the perception of self,” he said.
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.