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Salem school committee discusses parent response to school uniforms

Posted by Ryan Mooney  May 8, 2012 06:57 AM

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The parents of Salem have spoken, and it seems that, for now at least, they are largely in favor of having uniforms in public schools.

Assistant Superintendent Steven O'Brien revealed the results of a survey aimed at gauging parents' interest in requiring uniforms recently conducted by the school committee, at its regular meeting in the Council Chamber at City Hall on Monday night. All eight of the schools involved (the high school was not) received more than half of responses in favor of uniforms.

Of the 222 responses by parents of Bentley Elementary students, the third most responses of any school, 161 (73 percent) were in favor of school uniforms, with 40 against and 21 undecided. The highest volumes of responses were from parents of students at Witchcraft Heights Elementary (320), with 67 percent in favor, and the Bowditch School (306), with 66 percent in favor. Witchcraft also had the highest percentage of total responses at 68.

Only 20 percent of the surveys mailed to Collins Middle School parents were returned, with 83 of 139 respondents (60 percent) answering in favor of uniforms.

The numbers presented only take into account the question of if parents would support opting for school uniforms, which was one of 10 questions on the survey.

"This does not automatically mean that folks should go out right now and start buying uniforms," said Superintendent Stephen Russell.

The feeling among the committee is that the question becomes more of an institutional-level issue now.

The individual schools will most likely decide what direction to go in terms of forming committees to look deeper into the possibility of uniforms. According to Russell, the schools with overwhelming majorities in favor will most likely create committees immediately, while schools with low responses or slim majorities will discuss it further internally.

The issue from here on out will more or less be out of the school committee's hands - just the way Russell and Mayor Kim Driscoll, the committee chair, want it. Both went out of their ways to caution against making uniforms a central issue in the process of overhauling Salem schools.

"I agree with Dr. Russell, this is not a centerpiece at all to school improvement efforts, in fact it's a direct response to comments we heard from parents," Driscoll said. "I just want to make sure the process is the same. I have a feeling there are going to be folks who have strong opinions one way or the other, and that we put out some guidelines.

"We said if a majority of people wanted uniforms that we would sort of go to the next step of forming a committee to decide what those uniforms will look like...where there are places where there are fairly slim margins, and not great response to the survey, it may not be able to go to that next step."

One parent raised concerns with the survey.

"The overall context of that survey is very biased in favor of school uniforms," said Rick Johnson, whose two children attend Saltonstall School. "It had about 10 questions, I'd say about five or six of those questions are very slanted toward having a uniform policy, and lastly, the survey's poorly written. It's not very literate, it's very unclear questions."

Russell stressed that the survey was only intended to get an idea of whether or not people would endorse the idea, and in no way implies anything definite.

"I've tried to explain that our intention was more to conduct an informal survey, not to present it as a scientific survey, but a starting point under which we would get peoples' views around the pros, cons, how they felt, which is what we did," Russell said. "We'll see where it takes us."

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