Shelita Summerville wore a white blouse with a navy blue tie and a navy blue skort on her first day of second grade at Leonardtown Elementary School.
"It's a skort," her mother, Maxine, said as she lifted her daughter's skirt to reveal a pair of shorts underneath. "They're skirts but actually shorts."
Maxine said she wanted her daughter to wear a school uniform, but she didn't want it to stifle her creativity. So she decided to go for a skort instead of a traditional skirt or pair of pants.
Maxine was one of dozens of parents who arrived at the school on opening day with their children dressed in the white, beige and blue uniform colors adopted by the school.
The uniform approach to student dress is just one new look this year at a school in St. Mary's County, which on Thursday greeted higher enrollment, new teachers and much construction still in progress--all products of the region's growing population.
School officials estimated that 14,743 enrolled for the new school year, up 92 from last year. Only five teaching spots were vacant on opening day, while 115 new teachers reported to work.
Several schools opened with construction crews still in the midst of renovations and expansions. The $20 million upgrade of Chopticon High School and $14 million renovation of Esperanza Middle School are nearing completion. Meanwhile, a $21 million project at Leonardtown High School just began last week and will continue for three years.
Public schools in Calvert and Charles counties open tomorrow.
At Leonardtown Elementary, the new uniforms were the center of attention. After nearly three-quarters of parents responding to a poll earlier this year approved of a school uniform policy, the school adopted a voluntary policy. Students, and many teachers, will wear the uniform four days out of the school week, and have the option of wearing pants, kilts, skirts, shorts--or, in Shelita's case, skorts.
Principal Paula Juhl, who sported a white polo shirt and navy blue skirt as she greeted the students, expects that more and more students will choose to wear them as the year progresses. Later in the year, a trading closet will be set up for those who outgrow their clothes and want to donate them to their classmates.
St. Mary's County school officials said they hope the idea will catch on with other schools, especially the middle and high schools. Some schools already are considering instituting uniform policies.
School officials called the uniforms a way to promote unity among students. "We're hoping it'll make us more of a cohesive family and also that we won't have teasing [among the kids]," Juhl said.
Teasing is why many parents voted for the uniform. While escorting their kids into the building Thursday, many parents said they were concerned about the pressure children feel to outdo each other with brand-name clothing. The uniforms, they said, will change that.
"The clothes don't make the person," said Lisa Brooks. "I'm hoping it'll catch on." Her daughter, Megan Lawrence, already was nervous about beginning the first grade. Her outfit was the last thing she wanted to worry about, Brooks said.
"Some kids like to make fun of clothes," said Christina Becker, 10. "I think they're [uniforms] good."
Several parents said the new uniform policy made shopping for back-to-school clothing a lot easier and cheaper this year. "With blue, white and khaki, how can you go wrong?" asked Sue Abell, whose daughter Lauren, 5, chose to wear blue and white.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of Jessie Ventura T-shirts, pink dresses and striped shirts to go around.
As several students conducted an informal fashion show of their uniforms for teachers and parents, Cliff Charles Morgan, 6, waited for class to begin in black shorts and a green and white T-shirt.
"We talked about it, and we decided to just let him wear his own clothes," said his father, Dennis. "I don't see what difference it'll make."
Jarred Norris, 10, who wore a Pokemon T-shirt, said he probably won't wear the uniform at all this year. "My mom didn't make me," he said.
CAPTION: Timmy Menard, a new third-grader, stretches as his school bus pulls up to the front of Leonardtown Elementary.