EVERETT — When Tambark Creek Elementary opens its doors to an inaugural crop of students this September, the Everett School District will unveil a new crown jewel. The district’s first new school in 12 years will have a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and a unique engagement with the environment, including on-site wetlands.
Yet a month away from the first day of school, that isn’t what parents are talking about.
Uniforms continue to own the conversation as the school’s dress code has created ill will among some parents. That, school administrators say, has detracted from the fantastic opportunity that the new $44 million campus will provide its students.
“We don’t take the launch of a new school lightly at all,” Deputy Superintendent Peter Scott said. “All the things that are coming to bear here is the realization of a dream and thanks to the generosity of the voters. We want to spend our time and our energy celebrating that.”
Some parents aren’t so excited.
Ian McMillan, whose daughter, Fallyn, will be entering third grade, said school leadership hasn’t involved families while enacting a dress code he described as severe and prescriptive.
Last month, he started an online petition asking the district to suspend this uniform policy for the upcoming school year, and make the decision with parent and student representation for the following year. McMillan said that is the only middle ground that can be reached.
“We just want to have a seat at the table,” he said. “I wanted to give our communities and our families a voice.”
As of Friday, the petition is approaching 300 signatures, with a new goal of 500 after surpassing the original mark of 200, although McMillan was uncertain how many of those who signed are parents of Tambark Creek students.
Online and in emails to The Daily Herald, parents have questioned the legality of the dress code and whether it violates a student’s First Amendment right.
According to Larry Fleckenstein, assistant superintendent in charge of south region schools, no constitutional challenge has ever been made to the state law that Tambark Creek and districts statewide use as the foundation for dress code policies.
Additionally, the school board has previously fulfilled its obligation for hearing from the public when it adopted the original district policy on student dress many years ago.
“Our procedure allows the principal to personalize a dress code at their school relative to the board’s policy,” Fleckenstein said.
While parents were involved when Hawthorne Elementary, in the district’s north end, became the second Everett school to adopt uniforms, Fleckenstein said the situation at Tambark Creek is very different, because the school wasn’t already established.
Numerous parents in favor of or neutral to the school dress code were unwilling to speak on the record for fear of retribution against themselves or their children.
While understanding the frustration surrounding uniforms and the poor communication, one mom said that if the parents relay positive sentiments regarding uniforms, their children will be fine and adapt to the change.
Another parent said she favors what is best for students and leveling the playing field. However, she compared the district’s method for disseminating the information introducing the dress code to the fine print hidden in the terms and conditions of a cellphone plan.
Fleckenstein said the district circulated the dress code decision at Tambark the same way it does all information, when it has it ready to send to families.
Even so, McMillan is upset by what he said was the district’s unwillingness to engage with concerned parents. He said his daughter will not wear a uniform to public school and will instead dress in her normal attire.
In an email to The Daily Herald, Fallyn McMillan, 8, said it felt like she was being punished by the dress code. She asked why students are being forced to wear uniforms like prisoners in jails and said it would be harder for her to learn if she doesn’t like the clothes or they make her uncomfortable.
When posed with the proposition of students not abiding by the Tambark Creek dress code, administrators said loaner uniforms would be provided while school officials work to educate the student on expectations and get them back to class.
Ultimately, leadership at the school would work to address any continued behavior with the goal of not having to take disciplinary actions.
“Our bottom line is we want kids in classrooms learning,” Scott said. “That is sort of the North Star we are being guided by here.”
If a family needs financial assistance, the district has pledged to help with obtaining uniforms. However, there have been no fundraising efforts like were necessary when Hawthorne Elementary requested and received donations of between $30,000 and $35,000 to create a long-term system for providing financial support.
Everett is the only public school district in Snohomish County where students at some schools are required to wear uniforms. Whittier Elementary was the first campus to do so in 1995.