Babes in Uniform

Yes, even preschoolers' apparel has been regimented

Once upon a time, school uniforms weren't supposed to be the salvation of American education; they were just an easy way to spot kids who went to private school. Nobody claimed that uniforms leveled class differences, kept racist T-shirts off school grounds or curbed rampant consumerism. School uniforms didn't have to raise kids' self-esteem, or obliterate gang insignia, or make it obvious when dangerous outsiders were lurking in the school halls. The president of the United States didn't expect uniforms to stop teenagers from killing one another over designer jackets. Back then, uniforms didn't have to save the world. They only had to be wash-and-wear.

And back then, hardly anybody required two-year-olds to wear them.
Chris Hickman, age two, is oblivious to his clothing's role in saving his generation. Like most toddlers, Chris leaves sartorial decisions to his mom. And, as of this fall, to his Montessori school.

Now, on a typical weekday, his T-shirt bears a Kompany Kids logo, and his little navy shorts meet the school's new specs. As of September 3, the Galleria-area daycare -- like many others in Houston -- embraced the trend, extending the dress codes to kids not yet potty-trained. From now on, Chris and all other Kompany kids over the age of two are required to wear various Kompany-approved ensembles -- if not the official T-shirts and shorts, then the official polo shirts, sweat suits, pants, culottes or jumpers.

The rule irked many parents. At least one wrote an open letter complaining of the uniforms' cost, and others lamented that their children wouldn't be able to wear cute gifts from their grandparents.

What, precisely had motivated the school? Did some toddlers envy others' Air Windrunners? Were the three-year-olds sporting teensy gang insignia? Did the pre-K class fear infiltration by tiny, casually dressed drug dealers?

Dorothy Saunkeah, the director of Kompany Kids, wasn't anxious to discuss the matter. But she did explain that uniforms give kids a sense of belonging and signal that their activities are taken seriously.

Two weeks after the policy went into effect, it wasn't clear whether the dress code had added gravitas to the important business of napping, snacking and learning animal noises. But parents seemed resigned to the change; a few even liked the idea.

Most echoed Kelly Hickman, Chris' mom. "I can see uniforms for the kindergarten class, for the older kids," she said, standing on the sidewalk outside the center. "But not for little ones like him." She further noted that Chris' older brother, five-year-old Joseph, is already tired of wearing the same T-shirts all the time, and that he refuses to don the official uniform shorts. (Kelly bought him a long, baggy pair in the right shade of navy, a compromise that seems to be working.)

Chris, perched on Kelly's hip, had no comment.

Kompany Kids isn't the first daycare to enforce a dress code; it's not even the first in Houston. Smaller Scholars, a Montessori school, has required uniforms for its toddlers since it opened its Memorial location more than ten years ago. Owner Dorothy Swanson Ahuja says that her parents have always loved the blue houndstooth uniforms, and actually see them as a drawing card; in fact, she's none too happy that one of her competitors, Westside Montessori, recently followed suit.

Smaller Scholars' parents buy their kids' clothes from Lydian Apparel School Uniforms, which carries what may be the city's most extensive line of toddler uniforms. Daycares can choose from more than 15 styles of girls blouses -- not to mention pants, shorts, skorts, sweaters, hair bows, polo shirts, jumpers and even tote bags, all in the school's chosen colors. A typical jumper-and-blouse ensemble costs around $40; monogramming is extra.

Owner Jean Hight explains that toddler uniforms differ from bigger kids'. The teeny outfits are looser, with fewer hard-to-operate zippers and buttons, and with high waists to accommodate round little bellies. And toddlers have a wardrobe option not offered to their elders: some girls jumpers come complete with matching diaper covers.

Despite all those options, a few Montessori directors are slow to yield to the uniform craze. This fall, Kids' Arena in southwest Houston also began requiring uniforms. The school was sold in May, explains director Kay Horgan-Taylor, and the new owners insisted on the change, despite Horgan-Taylor's doubts. "I wasn't 100 percent," she admits.

But then, the proposed changes weren't implemented 100 percent, either. The original plan proposed uniforms for kids as young as 18 months. Teachers protested the idea of uniforms for the littlest kids; after all, diaper changes were already a hassle. The school agreed to require the ensembles only for relatively advanced kids. Such as three-year-olds.

To Horgan-Taylor's surprise, parents embraced the idea. They said they liked not having to think about their kids' clothes. They said they believed uniforms would help the kids differentiate unregulated summer from the rigorous Montessori academic year, that the special school-year uniforms would help the kids focus, stay on-task and earn high marks on their progress reports.

Besides, notes Horgan-Taylor -- now a convert -- the uniforms should help ease tiny-tot snobbery. "Even little children point out differences in clothes," she says. "Even three-year-olds will say, 'Look, I have on Baby Gap.' "

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