It’s been 17 years since Philadelphia introduced a school uniform policy with the goal of focusing students’ attention on learning and limiting problems related to students’ attire. While those goals seem worthwhile, the policy has also created challenges in some schools—challenges which have become the focus of a DT Philly project at Thomas Alva Edison High School.
The Edison Owls, a highly motivated team of students in Mrs. Barrett’s Life Skills class, is addressing the issue of students being sent home from school for being out of uniform, which happens for a number of reasons including the cost of the uniforms, students losing pieces of the required uniform or not having a clean uniform, and rebellion. The policy at Edison requires students to wear specific pants, shirts, shoes, belts, ties, and vests—a complete uniform can run $160, according to a recent article by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. The design team’s concern is this: Is it more important for students to be in uniform or to receive an education?
The design team framed their challenge with the following question: “How might we give staff an alternative to the consequence of [students] being sent home without a uniform?” Many students who are sent home don’t return that day, and those who do return have missed important instructional time. During their research, the team talked to and observed fellow students, teachers, and other staff members to develop an understanding of peoples’ thoughts surrounding the current uniform policy and the consequences for failing to abide by it.
From their research, the team learned that both students and teachers have strong feelings regarding the policy. Students become frustrated and angry when they are turned away for minor infractions, like missing a tie, and the team even witnessed a physical altercation between a student and staff member. However, some people like the idea of having a uniform and believe it helps reduce bullying, limits distractions, and makes the students look sharp and professional. A number of teachers disagreed with the consequence of being sent home and expressed the strong sentiment that a student’s education should take priority over their uniform. The team observed that some students manage to sneak in through other doors after being turned away at the main entrance, but that’s not a solution, and being able to sneak into school creates concerns about school safety. Now that the students have explored the motivations, attitudes, and behaviors around the uniform policy, they will start thinking creatively about ways to improve the situation.
Since joining DT Philly in September, the Edison Owls have begun talking about other problems in their school and how they could solve them using the design thinking process. They enjoy doing the optional program activities and look forward to earning the puzzle pieces that fit together to form a laser-engraved DT Philly pencil holder—a 3D indicator of project progress, since teams earn a piece each time they complete a stage of their project work. If they’re able to participate in DT Philly next year, the team would like to work on a project with regular education students to show that all students care about the same problems and want to see the same kinds of changes in their school.