Short Skirts, Angry Shirts: Respectability and why I believe in school uniformity

First off, I was recently called a “sexist” because of my stance on uniformity and the controversy around Erykah Badu’s statement (she didn’t write the article, she responded to it via tweets) around knee-length skirts (I am pro pants for ladies) in schools. I agree with her.

I typically don’t respond to messages (I get too many to read most of the time). I don’t typically respond to critics and commentary about my politics and my vision for education for low opportunity youth. I don’t agree with mansplaining any hetero-normative views on addressing male desires (especially when female teachers can also be a danger to kids). It’s bigger than that — because it’s about school, not a restaurant, park, or church, so I have decided to share an experience that shaped me, by the person who continues to be a guiding light for why I am an educator.

There was an incident, I recall vividly as to why I am for uniformity. A young man decided to show up to school with a t-shirt that displayed on the front, a (then) popular rap phrase that I will share now — the censored version:

“B_itches ain’t sh___ but hoes and tricks.”

The school has a strong uniform policy, that I didn’t understand, but my mentor and the principal of the school, Dr. Lorraine Monroe, explained to me why it was important once the incident was brought to her.

The young man cried, “free speech” and that words were just words and that it shouldn’t interfere with everyone’s ability to learn and perform in the classroom. He felt she was censoring “Hip Hop” and that many girls defended his shirt and his right to wear it during moments when the school uniform wasn’t implemented.

Dr. Monroe listened to him for a couple of minutes and then politely handed him the paperwork for him to be transferred to another school. She never gained pleasure from removing a student, especially when school board officials would attack her politics as not being appropriate for a “public school”. However, she did what she had to do, as a leader, and the boy’s parents lashed out at Dr. Monroe and joined members of the community who referred to her as being “too strict” and collected objections from academic scholars that there wasn’t evidence (at the time) that uniforms affected a child’s learning. This was during a time when fewer than 1% of New York City secondary public schools required school uniforms.

Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, NY was one of the first mostly Black college-preparatory public schools in inner city America, and now most NYC schools have uniforms — here is why.

On top of all the socio-economic and cultural factors that school uniforms address, for Dr. Monroe, it was the expectation for kids of color that we, as educators of color and white educators, set out for them. Our kids should not just compete with private schools but exceed them. She believed, as do I, that poor kids shouldn’t be measured by the skills they obtain to serve not-so-poor kids, but they should have the competence be leaders themselves — to lead opportunities and create them. She believed in art, creativity, careers, college, science, mathematics, and everything a child needed to succeed, she believed that a school should be judged by its ability to provide for the needs of their imagination.

The topic of school skirts has proved controversial Photo: Alamy —

Dr. Monroe may not be a highly known figure such as other heroes of mine like Dr. Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone), or a movie be made about her like Dr. Marva Collins or Joe Louis Clark (Lean on Me), but her name is known among urban educators — she is legendary and a progenitor of modern urban school leadership. If you see a high performing public school, chances are they took some lessons from the Monroe Doctrine.

So when this incident came up with the boy and the shirt, she stated clearly to her detractors that his “shirt” or any other form of wearable distractions did not fit her vision for what the school is, should be, and would be. She stated very clearly that “high income, private school kids can do all they want all day”, but not her kids, because her kids can not afford to be distracted and that the community and parents who entrust their children to her know that she can deliver on an environment that fosters their child’s growth and success.

Now, this is more than just about what kids wear. Oh, and by the way, Dr. Monroe required teachers to be uniformed too. It’s up to teachers to create and enforce a safe environment for their students and part of that is holding themselves accountable, not just holding the kids accountable. This did not make her a fan amongst teacher unions.

Dr. Monroe understood that, like winter, more shirts are coming. There would be other items that kids show up to school with that disturb the ebb and flow of learning. As an educator, you create what works, and that means saying yes to a #BlackLivesMatter sticker on a computer and saying no to misogyny written on a baseball cap. Respect and what everyone, and I mean everyone from school maintenance, to after cafeteria staff, to after-school security contribute to creating a safe and nurturing environment for a young person’s potential is tantamount to what school is and what school isn’t.

What isn’t school? the streets. That is what private schools and tuition-based, learning environments don’t have to compete with compared to public schools. Dr. Monroe was defiant about this. The mighty Lorraine.

There is a reason why there are many (but not enough) youth-of-color based hackathons popping up across the globe. Hackathon Academy, created by Qeyno Labs, set a precedent, a benchmark of what an accelerated pop-up school can look like and feel like.

The key to Hackathon Academy’s success isn’t just our strict dress code, but every aspect of a participant’s experience is meticulously cultivated to provide the optimal learning environment, one that is free, as much as possible, from distractions. Qeyno is currently working with the Native American Community Academy to bring this recipe for success to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the first ever My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon for Native Youth.

So can boys walk around with shirts that insult women? Not in my book. Can girls walk around with short skirts? No, not in my school. Can adults walk around with the authority that what they wear shouldn’t be a factor in how they “model” excellence for their students? I think you know my answer to that one too.

It is up to us, all of us, to develop conversations among our youth about their power and their ability to use their creative gifts to make a difference for themselves, their families, and their communities, and that starts with making sure that as they test their wits, their genius, their magic, that the entire environment to which they work and play is suitable for self-discovery and exploration. Anything that distracts and detracts from that conversation, to the best of my ability, the abilities of my team, will be removed. Nothing gets in the way of what our kids deserve.

You don’t like it. Find another school. There are plenty.

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