Wyandanch High School this fall began implementing a uniform dress policy and distributed to students blazers, sweaters and polo shirts in the school colors of green, gold and black, all embroidered with the school insignia.
Dress restrictions are common in public schools, and some schools have implemented dress codes that require certain colors or types of clothing be worn, but Wyandanch, whose policy is nonmandatory, is believed to be the only public school on Long Island with actual uniforms.
Although it may seem to be just a cosmetic change, the school’s principal says adopting uniforms has produced a dramatic transformation already in a school that has one of the lowest graduation rates on Long Island, with 68 percent graduating last year.
“The results have been amazing,” Principal Paul Sibblies said. “Students have bought into this concept, they have embraced it, and today the whole climate of this building is different.”
Some students are so proud of their uniforms, which they say make them feel good about themselves; they have begun to call their high school Wyandanch Prep.
The initiative was devised by Sibblies, who said he had a vision to “change culture in order to build good social skills, which would then transfer into better valued instruction in the classroom.”
But he had a problem: No money to buy the uniforms and no desire to pass the cost onto parents in one of the most economically distressed communities on Long Island, where nearly 18 percent live below poverty level, according to the latest census information. So he turned to Jeffrey Gural.
Gural is a successful real estate developer originally from Woodmere who is chairman of the international firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. He said he first met Sibblies at the latter’s former job at South Ozone Park’s PS 45 where Sibblies was assistant principal and where Gural was invited to participate in a reading program.
Several years ago Sibblies, who came to Wyandanch in 2006 and was made principal in 2009, invited Gural to speak at Wyandanch, where officials told him about a program to help students get into college that had lost funding. Gural made a donation to that program, he said, and last year got a call from Sibblies who told him his idea for school uniforms.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” Gural said. “I said to him, ‘Do you really think this will make a difference?’ ”
“He was just so certain it would instill a pride in the kids,” Gural said in an interview. “I could tell he’s gung ho to help get these kids into college. That was enough for me.”
Gural donated more than $100,000 for the uniforms, which consist of blazers, cardigan sweaters and polo shirts. Ties and bow ties are optional accessories.
Now, Sibblies had to get the student body on board. He began with the conviction that students wear what is popular.
“I used the theory based on what I see with the kids which is, whatever Lebron or Kobe wears, our kids will want to wear these items,” he said.
Starting off cautiously, Sibblies bought a small batch of uniforms and gave them to the basketball team to wear on game days.
One of those players, junior Lameik Hamilton, 17, said he immediately took to the new attire. “I feel like I’m the flyest,” he said proudly as he tugged on the lapels of his blazer.
It didn’t take long before Sibblies’ theory proved accurate.
Brenda Lagos, 14, said she was initially skeptical when she heard about the new dress policy. In fact, the freshman said she was all ready to protest to the board of education. Then she saw the uniforms.
“Seeing how good it looked on someone else made us want to wear it,” she said, adding that the uniforms make “everyone look sophisticated and smart.”
Students were soon asking Sibblies for information on when more uniforms would arrive.
Students are told to wear the uniform with black or khaki pants or skirts and black shoes or black sneakers. Wednesday is now All Business Wednesday, and blazers are required. On Fridays students are allowed to dress down and wear regular clothes.
All items are provided for free to the students. When they graduate, everything except the shirts will be cleaned and handed down to the next batch of students, similar to sports uniforms. Sibblies said the school is also creating a website to allow students to purchase uniform items.
While the policy is not mandatory, Sibblies said students are expected to comply. And, so far, they do because they want to.
“Common Core expects us to have our kids college and career ready, so my theory is it’s not just within the books or instruction, but it’s also in the way we present ourselves and the way we articulate during interviews or anything of that nature,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, from 2003 to 2004, and 2011 to 2012, the percentage of public schools nationwide reporting that they required students to wear uniforms increased from 13 percent to 19 percent.
On Long Island, several schools have attempted a more formal dress policy but most of those did not involve actual uniforms with school insignia and blazers, but rather clothing requirements that parents had to buy themselves. Some of those districts, such as Uniondale and Brentwood, have let the policy fade and it appears only Roosevelt’s school district continues to promote a strict dress code, but not one with uniforms.
In Wyandanch so far this fall, 575 students have received at least some uniform items. The $100,000 spent so far bought components of the uniform, with complete outfits for only 98 students. Sibblies said Gural’s money has run out so he is looking for an additional $45,000 to buy the remaining items that will complete the uniforms for the entire student body.
Sibblies said he’s determined to fill in all the components and complete the uniforms for everyone. “The response has been way beyond my expectations,” he said. The “icing on the cake,” he said, was the sight of an alleged gang member wearing a uniform shirt and bow tie.
“Those are the ones who you expect to get a backlash from, but he was totally onboard,” he said. “He just seemed so different.”
On top of looking better, more students are coming to school on time, Sibblies said, because now “they don’t have to worry about what their peers will think about how they dress.”
“In the mornings it was so stressful,” Lagos said. “I used to get up at 5 a.m. to pick out my clothes. I would wonder, If I’m wearing this, am I going to impress or are they going to push me away because of it?”
Sophomore Kevin Garcia, 15, said he had his doubts about the uniforms but now relishes their effect.
“Other people are always looking, ‘Oh, he’s wearing the latest Jordans, look at those clothes . . .’ but it doesn’t matter now because we’re all wearing the same thing,” he said.
Now, said freshman Henry Pereira, 14, there are no more side glances in the hallways.
“There’s no hierarchy,” he said. “Before there were little cliques. If they wear expensive clothing, then they would be with their people and if they didn’t, they’d get pushed out to their own group.”
As importantly, the uniforms take the fashion pressure off parents as well.
“For my daughter, everything had to be the latest,” said Lisa Simpson, whose daughter Shanel Simpson-Young, 17, is a senior. “Sometimes I was working seven days a week just to get that extra money to make sure she felt comfortable in school.”
Now her daughter, who worked all summer to save up for clothes, can spend that money on senior year touchstones such as the prom.
English language arts teacher Deven Kane said she is already seeing one major change.
“They’re more focused on learning because the clothing aspect isn’t there,” she said.
Kane has noticed another shift in behavior: the students now try to modify each other’s conduct, and will tell each other to be quiet and pay attention in class.
“They’ll say, ‘Let’s be more scholarly,’ ” she said.
Dexter Ward, the coordinator for the guidance department, said he’s seeing a much larger turnout when colleges visit, from an average of five students before the uniforms to 25 students recently. Walking through the hallways, he was surprised at what he heard.
“I hear students referring to themselves as going to Wyandanch Prep,” he said. “Now that’s a more positive attitude.”
One student, after showing up for a part-time job interview dressed in his uniform, was told immediately that he was hired because he had been the best-dressed applicant.
Kane said that the sense of pride that comes with a “Wyandanch Prep” mentality is a needed morale-booster in a district such as Wyandanch.
“When they go to other schools, they are perceived in a different light,” she said. “And those students have a different expectation of behavior and so now they feel like they have to live up to that.”
Hamilton, the basketball player, said wearing the uniforms when visiting other schools brings students “a lot of respect. We set the standards.” But even more importantly, he said, the uniform “makes me feel like a better person.”