At Collegiate Charter School of Lowell, students who repeatedly break the K-12 school’s dress code are sent to a “time-in room,” where they must wait — sometimes for entire class periods — for someone to bring a proper change of clothes.
“We feel that it brings our students a feeling of being part of a larger team,” said Carl Nystrom, business manager and interim school director. “Chronic disregard of our uniform dress code will result in progressive discipline.”
Less than an hour away in Newburyport, students at River Valley Charter School have the freedom to wear just about whatever they please. As a K-8 school using the Montessori education model of learning — which emphasizes multi-age classrooms, individual and small group instruction, and workspaces on floors rather than at desks — students have choices.
“We don’t have a dress code,” said Jonnie Lyn Evans, executive director of the school. “It’s just not currently part of the culture here.”
While school dress codes have long been contentious at public charter schools, they came under new scrutiny at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden after a student was written up in August for wearing a hijab.
Following the incident, school leaders met with members of the Muslim community to discuss making it easier for students to seek religious exemptions to the dress code.
Among 21 charter schools surveyed in the Greater Boston area, 13 currently have precisely defined uniform policies, six have looser dress codes, and two have no formal code at all, highlighting the wide range of clothing standards, expectations, and student compliance.
Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said charter schools are subject to the same legal restrictions as public schools when it comes to dress codes.
While regular public schools watch out for clothes that promote hate speech or are otherwise too provocative, enforcing dress codes applies only to cities and towns that choose to do so. According to a local option state law, “School officials shall not abridge the rights of students as to personal dress and appearance except if such officials determine that such personal dress and appearance violate reasonable standards of health, safety and cleanliness.”
At South Shore Charter Public School in Norwell, students are required to wear a polo shirt with the school’s logo. At Marlborough’s Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School, uniforms also are required and must be purchased from Tommy Hilfiger or Land’s End. Meanwhile, at schools like Christa McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham, students are barred only from wearing clothing that could disrupt the learning environment.
Nystrom said Collegiate Charter’s dress code helps lower clothing costs for families and eliminates peer pressure among students who might otherwise be worried about donning the latest styles. He said the uniform — khakis, a white polo or button-down, and closed-toed shoes in black or brown — has seen little change since the school opened in 2013.
He said the Lowell charter school offers spirit days and other non-uniform days as a reward for compliance with the policy, although some students still opt to wear their standard outfits.
“Our uniform compliance is really a commitment between our parents and our students,” Nystrom said. “We haven’t had any issues.”
But not all schools are as strict as Collegiate Charter or as free-flowing as River Valley. Many fall in the middle, like Rising Tide Charter Public School in Plymouth. Michael O’Keefe, head of school at Rising Tide, said the dress code is meant to guide students to dress “for the work of school.” Students should treat their studies as if it were a professional job, O’Keefe said, and dress accordingly.
However, the school doesn’t require a uniform and allows students to decide for themselves what is appropriate to wear as long as it doesn’t “contain hate speech, violence, profanity, or drugs and illegal activity,” O’Keefe said, the result of a decades-long evolution of a once stringent dress code. Other current restrictions include hats or head coverings, with exceptions made for “genuinely held religious beliefs,” O’Keefe added.
“While they can express who they are and who they’re becoming, [clothes] can’t interfere with health or safety,” O’Keefe said.
If a student repeatedly ignores the dress code, O’Keefe added, he or she will have a “community standards meeting” with the student’s adviser and the principal or assistant principal. But because the dress code at Rising Tide is rather flexible and intuitive compared to schools with uniforms, O’Keefe said student violations are rare.
“It’s not a major battleground here,” he said.
At KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate, communications manager Sam Cooke said administrators canceled the uniform policy in 2021 as they focused on a return to in-person learning following the COVID shutdown.
“And then we got some feedback from families that they would like to see uniforms back,” Cooke said. “I’ve noticed that even if students and families don’t agree with the uniforms, they still are able to commit to it because they were involved in the decision-making.”
Cooke said KIPP aims to use rare uniform violations as an opportunity for discussion with students, asking “What’s going on here? What can we do to support them?”
Heather Zolnowski, executive director of Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter Public School in Franklin, said the school’s board decided about a decade ago not to implement a uniform policy. At the time, she said, Benjamin Franklin had a “more stringent dress code,” which has evolved into a relatively laid-back set of rules today: Clothes must be in good condition, may not display vulgar or inappropriate references, and may not “reveal undergarments or buttocks,” she said.
Zolnowski said the school rarely sees uniform violations and does not typically send students home over infractions. Three years ago, the student council petitioned the board, arguing that jeans and denim are not disruptive to the learning environment.
“And the board agreed with them,” Zolnowski said. “It is a conversation that continues to be open. We’re not set in stone.”
Zolnowski said new parents frequently ask about whether the school will switch to uniforms, but most families prefer the current dress code.
At South Shore Charter Public School in Norwell, Alicia Savage, the executive director, said she can’t even remember the last time their lenient, “common sense” dress code was violated.
A similar scenario has played out at River Valley in Newburyport, where Evans said the school “almost never” faces clothing-related problems among its students.
The only explicit dress restriction students have at River Valley is on their shoes, Evans said, but not for any traditional reason. Students wear “indoor,” commonly soft-soled shoes to keep the floors clean because that’s their primary workspace.
“A lot of work happens on the floor,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to be your classic example of a charter school in Massachusetts.”
The school nurse is armed with a small collection of comfortable clothes should someone show up to class wearing something that “disrupts the educational process or threatens the health or safety of any individual,” according to the school’s 2023 parent handbook.
But at a school with such loose restrictions, Evans said there’s no hard-and-fast rule to determine which clothing is disruptive or hazardous.
“I just know it when I see it,” Evans said.