In the bustling hallways of South Junior High, you might see a kid wearing flip-flops in January. You might see students with multiple piercings or mohawks.
But in the space between their ankles and their necks, students follow a dress code: khakis and polo shirts, or slight variations of that ensemble.
"Having a uniform has eliminated a lot of arguments about getting dressed. Mornings are a lot simpler," said Susan Rench, whose daughter, Alexis, is a South eighth-grader.
The school sends out surveys about the uniforms each year, Rench said. And the dress code is consistently popular with parents and students, according to school administrators.
"I've heard from a lot of people that the uniforms improve their idea of South," said Alexis. Her only complaint: "I like having the uniforms; just not these actual uniforms."
She said she'd like a few more options for her polo shirts beyond the school colors, white and maroon. But she found a way to express her creativity last year: She dyed her hair neon pink.
'A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD'
Schools that require uniforms are rare in the Treasure Valley. Some charter and private schools do. Nampa's Idaho Arts Charter School and Ridgeline Alternative High School require uniforms. A few Meridian schools adopted what is sometimes called "common dress" - a less regimented approach with similar clothing, certain colors and no nonschool logos.
One school, Jefferson Elementary in Boise, dropped uniforms last fall. South and West junior highs are the two public schools in the Boise district that require uniforms.
South was the first to adopt the code, in 2006, at the urging of then-Principal Kathleen McCurdy, who wanted to try to get rid of social divisions as well as age-inappropriate clothing. West followed in 2008.
West Principal Tim Stanley said he wasn't sure at first how he'd feel about working at a school with a required uniform.
But the dress code helps discipline and cuts down on the number of kids sent to the office for wearing inappropriate clothes, Stanley said.
"Even kids say it makes it so much easier: You put on your khakis, or black pants, or a white or green polo shirt," he said. "It puts everyone on a level playing field."
Stanley said the dress code has built a better culture at school.
"We just had seventh- and eighth-grade basketball tryouts," he said. "Some schools struggled to get enough students interested. We had over 100 kids try out."
The school's nearly 1,000 students come from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Uniforms promote easy mingling, said Stanley. When everyone's wearing the same thing, no one pays attention to whether a shirt comes from Brooks Brothers or Target.
"When they get in a pack, students will say they hate the uniforms," said Betty Olson, principal at South. "But individually, they'll admit that they don't wake up with stomachaches worrying about what to wear anymore. They tell me they can have poor friends and they can have rich friends."
Olson said there are no studies that tie school dress codes to increased academic achievement. She echoes Stanley's belief that the greatest benefit is building community inside school walls.
A dress code does mean a few extra duties for staffers.
Both West and South keep stashes of extra polo shirts and pants in case there's an issue - a kid forgets a uniform, a uniform gets torn or dirty, or a student comes from a home where money's so tight that parents can't afford the required clothes.
Counselors at both schools are in the habit of watching out for clothing sales to stock the cabinets, say principals. And it's not uncommon for staffers to do batches of laundry to make sure every student has something to wear.
UNIFORMS DON'TFIT AT JEFFERSON
Kay Hansen was principal at the elementary school during its three years of experimenting with a dress code.
Jefferson stopped enforcing the code this school year after it failed to become the self-supporting program that administrators and teachers sought, said Hansen, who is now assistant principal at Whitney Elementary and Grace Jordan Elementary.
"A number of us felt uniforms would help the whole culture, helping students know they were here at a special place to do a special job, and that they were in our special clothes to do that," she said.
She's still not sure why the program didn't work at Jefferson as well as it's working at South and West. Jefferson is a feeder school for South; the schools have a similar demographic, with high numbers of low-income students.
The school tried to make uniforms easy for families, Hansen said. It provided clothing vouchers and maintained a loaning closet. Staffers did laundry. The PTA sponsored a twice-yearly "uniform swap" - families could donate used clothes and others could buy them for as little as 50 cents.
The swaps were poorly attended, said Hansen, even though they were scheduled on Family Learning Nights.
Staffers modified the uniform to make it less expensive - from khaki pants to good jeans; from polo shirts to plain navy blue or black T-shirts. Operation School Bell, an Assistance League program that provides new school clothes for low-income kids, pitched in and donated shirts.
But a survey sent to parents showed that although they supported uniforms in general, cost was still an issue for some families, even with the school assistance.
When it became harder for Jefferson to sustain the program, the school surveyed parents about donating money to keep it going.
"Overwhelmingly, they didn't want to," said Hansen. "Ultimately, there was not the support from staff or parents to continue."
FREE DRESS REWARDS
School dress codes aren't a "silver bullet," said South's Olson, "any more than eating carrots will give you good eyesight."
But uniforms are a useful tool for teachers and staff, and they are even part of a reward system at South.
A consistently clean cafeteria, reduced tardiness or students carrying their required library book at all times might earn students a "jeans" day or a "free dress" day.
On one recent free dress day, a student went above and beyond - he showed up at school in a suit and tie, said Olson.
Students also earned a jeans day by contributing to a clothing drive for the homeless.
Olson said that from time to time, she hears from high schoolers who are free to wear what they want.
"We've had students come back and tell us they miss the uniforms," she said.
Anna Webb: 377-6431