Raymond Cheeks, 10, eyed his black Nike Air basketball shoes longingly, lying there in the corner of the room, unused. Then he looked at his feet, which were covered by staid black dress shoes.

He frowned. Then he tugged on his navy blue slacks, creased down each leg, and adjusted his starched white, button-down dress shirt.

It had been two weeks, but he still wasn't comfortable in his new school duds.

"I got mad because I didn't like the sound of wearing uniforms," Raymond said, recalling the talk when his mother, Stella, told him that he'd have to wear one each day to Allenwood Elementary, a public school in Temple Hills.

If Raymond, a sixth-grader, had his druthers, he'd wear not only his basketball shoes but also his Chicago Bulls No. 23 jersey. "Everybody should have a chance to be different," he said.

But at Allenwood, all students are dressing alike: boys in navy slacks and white shirts and girls in navy skirts and white blouses. It's all part of a plan to improve student behavior and self-esteem, school officials say, so that pupils may concentrate more on learning than on fashion. And it's a trend that is on the rise in Prince George's County.

Allenwood, which had a voluntary uniform policy last year, this fall became the county's 11th public school to make uniforms a requirement. The school joins nine other public elementary schools and one public middle school in Prince George's. Also, 21 other Prince George's public schools encourage but don't require students to wear uniforms.

"It helps them with their social aspect of learning," said Allenwood Principal Henry James, who is in his second year at the school. "They're not worried or concerned about what they're wearing, so that's not a distraction. From what I'm told by parents, their behavior has changed dramatically" for the better.

So far, such evidence is anecdotal. Officials said they will not know whether suspensions and referrals are down until the end of the school year.

But among parents, the idea has been well received. About 88 percent of the parents at Allenwood Elementary signed a petition last year supporting the move to mandatory uniforms, more than the 75 percent that the school board required to approve the measure.

"I think every school in the county should have this policy," Stella Cheeks said. "Students shouldn't be creative in the way they dress. They should be creative in their class work."

Uniform policies in public schools are spreading not just in Prince George's but also in many urban school districts across the country, education experts say. Schools seeking to improve the learning environment, curb gang violence and lessen economic divides among students have decided that uniforms can accomplish these goals in a cost-effective way.

Although mandatory uniform policies remain rare outside parochial schools, many public school students--about 25 percent of those across the nation, by some estimates--attend schools with policies on uniforms.

Several public schools in the District and Montgomery and Fairfax counties have voluntary uniform policies, and last week two D.C. Council members proposed a policy that would require all District students to wear uniforms.

"I would say it's definitely spreading," said Alfred Hess, professor of education and public policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who is studying several Chicago schools that have mandated uniforms. "There is little evidence that using uniforms improves achievement, but it does tend to improve the school climate, which has an indirect effect on achievement."

School officials in Long Beach, Calif., said that there was a 36 percent reduction in school crime and that fighting at the county's middle schools went down by 50 percent after a uniform policy was implemented.

But not everyone is sold on uniforms. Some say such policies just don't work: A study in the District in 1991 concluded that uniforms appeared to have no effect on student behavior, attendance or achievement. Some parents and students say uniforms curb a student's right to free expression.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union put it this way: "We think that uniforms should be voluntary with an opt-out provision. There should be no discipline for not dressing as required."

Public school uniform policies have been challenged in courts across the country--with mixed results. In districts where such policies have been upheld, school officials successfully have argued that uniforms are a community standard.

Robyn Zgorski, principal of Fort Foote Elementary in Fort Washington, said she is glad that parents at her school pushed to adopt a uniform policy three years ago. Student behavior has improved, Zgorski said, as referrals declined from 106 in the 1996-97 school year to 51 last year.

Although Zgorski said that the uniforms weren't the only reason behavior improved--she also credited a school-wide character education program--she said the uniforms ended jealousies over clothing and helped students be more focused in class.

"It really sets a tone throughout the school," Zgorski said. "We have a very academic and focused environment. My first year here, at least once or twice a month, mostly among fifth- or sixth-grade girls, we'd have someone in tears because of someone teasing them about what they were wearing or about the fact that they couldn't afford nice clothes. That really hurts, and it ties into their self-image and self-esteem. We used to deal with that issue every day, but since the uniform policy was adopted, we haven't had one since."

At Allenwood Elementary, a majority of the school's students decided to voluntarily wear uniforms last year, but there were others who chose not to even when parents offered ice cream to classes in which 100 percent of the students wore them.

When a group of parents began to discuss making the policy mandatory, some parents "definitely were against it," said Tarey Houston, the school's Parent-Teacher Association president who led the petition drive. "They said they thought children had a right to express themselves. And a few children showed up the first couple of days not wearing them. But now they are."

The parents of students who do not wear uniforms are told that the students must begin wearing them or transfer to another school.

The students have mixed opinions about their new dress code. One boy, Houston said, tried to give his uniform some extra flair by wearing a T-shirt over his dress shirt, but he was told to remove it.

Third-grader Andrew Spriggs, 8, said that when his father told him about the new policy, "I thought he was joking."

Andrew says he would like a chance to wear other kinds of clothes, such as his jeans and Old Navy T-shirt. His buddy who lives across the street and attends a different school "likes to tease me sometimes."

Andrew's classmate Antonio Dean, 8, is more impressed by the uniform because, he said, "it looks nice."

Educators say that one nice thing about having students wear the same outfits is that children whose parents can't or won't buy them expensive clothes will not feel inferior.

"There's no competition for brand names," said Mary DiMartino, a third-grade teacher at Allenwood who said the policy "isn't for every school but is a good idea for ours."

She said that it's working so far, that her students seem to be less concerned with what their peers are wearing and therefore less distracted in class. And, she said, teachers have used the uniforms to make a point to students.

"I heard one [physical education] teacher say, 'You are in uniforms, now act like you're wearing a uniform,' " she said.

Indeed, it's not just uniforms that Allenwood is using to promote better manners. Teachers also have begun to incorporate "character education" into their lessons, said James, the principal.

Teachers try to use anecdotes and real-world news events to talk to students about honesty, responsibility and respect. Before classes begin, teachers meet with students to discuss anything that is on their minds in a "respectful and positive way," James said.

Hess, the Northwestern University professor, said schools in urban areas have more incentive to adopt uniform policies than do schools in suburban areas, because the alternative can mean students will show up in gang colors. In suburban schools where gangs are less prevalent, Hess said, parents generally can afford to discuss a uniform policy in a more philosophical way and hold on to ideas such as "free expression."

"In the suburbs, you'd find a much higher cost to uniforms in terms of infringing on students' and parents' firmly held beliefs," Hess said. "In the inner city, the costs of wearing uniforms are less, and the benefit is to downplay gang violence."

Linda Waples, principal at Glassmanor Elementary in Oxon Hill, said her community embraced the idea of uniforms when she broached the subject three years ago.

"They thought uniforms would be a great idea," she said, "and they took [the effort] over."

Still, some students remain skeptical.

Allenwood Elementary's Raymond Cheeks said that when he is promoted to middle school next year, he will retire his uniform to the dustbin.

But his mother thinks otherwise.

"We might let him go a year," Stella Cheeks said. "But after that maybe we'll lead another effort for a uniform policy."


Mandatory: Allenwood, Benjamin Foulois, Cooper Lane Academy, District Heights, Fort Foote, Glassmanor, Middleton Valley, Overlook, Shadyside, Tayac, Lord Baltimore

Voluntary: Ardmore, Arrowhead, Avalon, Bladensburg, Carmody Hills, Carrollton, Forest Heights, Hillcrest Heights, William Beanes, John Bayne, John E. Howard, Gladys Noon Spellman, Kettering Elementary, Kettering Middle, Kingsford, Morningside, North Forestville, Panorama, Patuxent, Phyllis E. Williams, Valley View

CAPTION: Above, Tara Moore leads Joshua Aquino, Israel Holland and the rest of her third-grade class into position for a school hug at Fort Foote Elementary in Fort Washington. Left, students in uniform participate in the hug, which is intended to kick off a year without violence.