The new principal at struggling Eustis Heights Elementary School is gathering support from business leaders and the school Advisory Council to institute student uniforms this academic year.
The Lake County School Board will decide at its meeting Monday whether to grant Principal Rhonda Hunt’s request. The uniforms feature navy, light blue, pink, white or hunter green polo shirts with khaki, blue or black bottoms.
Hunt, who previously served as principal of Lost Lake Elementary, was reassigned to prop up Eustis Heights, which was designated an “F” school by the Florida Department of Education last month.
In a recent interview, Hunt said her experiences at the helm of other schools reflect that there is a clear correlation between uniforms and high levels of student achievement.
Hunt said implementing the same policy at Eustis Heights is one way to improve the school’s grade.
“It takes away the discussion about who is wearing what clothing,” she said. “It helps students focus on learning and it really does help improve behavior. We become about academics, not about competition.”
Hunt said she has received a lot of support from the community, receiving donations to help parents who may not be able to afford uniforms.
In the 2013-14 school year, Grassy Lake Elementary, Lost Lake Elementary, Sawgrass Bay Elementary, Clermont Elementary and Cypress Ridge Elementary required students to wear uniforms.
The average FDOE grade for all five schools was a B.
Doreathe Cole, principal of Grassy Lake Elementary, concurred with Hunt that uniforms have been effective in raising student achievement and reducing disciplinary problems at the school.
“It puts everyone on an even level field when to comes to their clothing,” she said. “You are coming together and focusing on education.”
Grassy Lake received a B from the FDOE.
The new principal of Sawgrass Bay Elementary, Heather Gelb, also embraces uniforms.
“It just takes out the status symbol regarding behavior,” she said. “When you have students’ concentration more on academics rather than social status dictated by their clothes, you are going to get higher achievement.”
The FDOE reported Sawgrass Bay Elementary dropped a letter grade from a B to C in the 2013-14 school year.
But the issue has proven controversial in Lake County.
The board has tried several times to change the district’s dress code, even giving a tentative OK to a stricter policy in 2012, only to reverse itself when parents protested.
In April, the board floated the idea of requiring students district-wide to wear school uniforms, as it reviewed the Student Code of Conduct policy.
However, on June 23, the board passed the policy without changing the dress code.
School Board member Bill Mathias said while uniforms can be conducive to learning, he is not convinced uniforms are the single largest factor in student achievement.
“Uniforms are a tool to begin changing the culture of the school,” he said.
Tod Howard, another School Board member, echoed similar comments.
“I believe being strict on the dress code does improve the school community for students,” he said.