Monday, October 26, 2009

Purple and Green

It's Friday afternoon and and Shamrock's walkways are bright with purple and neon green. Kids wearing brand-new school T-shirts hustle along, bookbags slung over their backs, heading for their transportation home. They chatter happily, sharing their weekend plans.

We tried something new with our T-shirts this year. Instead of selling them, we gave them away. For two years the PTA designed and sold T-shirts for students to wear on "Spirit Fridays." The problem was, we never sold that many. Some kids got shirts; most did not. The splotches of bright color were few and far between.

Part of the problem was money – our families don't have much spare cash, and many have two or three children at the school. It always hurt to have a parent ask about the T-shirt price, and then turn away, quietly saying "maybe later." We also didn't have the volunteers to run a major sales campaign.

So this year we decided that the only way to get most of our kids in school T-shirts was to make them free. The PTA had about $2,000 in reserve funds, just enough to buy shirts for all the kids. It seemed the time to spend it.

Still, we didn't want to just give away the T-shirts. Something for nothing doesn't happen in the real world. So we consulted with a few folks and shaped a program based in part on a KIPP model (we're miffed at our local KIPP because they steal our teachers, but they have some good ideas).

The teachers in each grade set up criteria: basics like wearing uniforms, completing homework and behaving well in class (most of our kids do this already, but some need extra encouragement). Students who met the requirements during the first four weeks of school would get T-shirts. Those who didn't would get a second chance during the next four weeks.

As the end of the fourth week drew near, I picked up a pile of sample shirts and began moving from class to class to measure students. Most smiled as they held out their arms and discussed their options – who wanted form-fitting, who wanted loose. Where students were absent, their classmates happily advised me on the proper sizes.

The Friday after the shirts arrived, purple and green were everywhere.

So far, we think it's a success. A friend told me the other day that her kindergartener had come home dancing with delight, showing off the beautiful shirt she had gotten "for being good." Teachers said that the incentive – however small – had made a difference, from kindergarten through fifth grade.

As always, though, questions remain. What will happen with those students who didn't meet the goals, and thus went T-shirt free on the first Spirit Fridays. Will they try harder? Or will they get angry and give up?

Perhaps most important, was this the right place to spend our money? The PTA doesn't have a lot of it, and the T-shirts will be this year's second-largest expense (after our family dinners, which are paid for by a grant).

I've noticed that donors are sometimes reluctant to pay for "frills" at high-poverty schools. How does a bright bit of cloth help a child learn? Wouldn't it make more sense to spend the money on books, or computers, or a science program? Don't the kids need to get down to the business of study, and forget about what they have to wear?

But to me, such objections are too abstract. They're much like the phrases "every child can learn" or "black kids don't need to sit next to white kids to get a good education." While there is some truth to these ideas, too often they float free from the realities of what it actually takes to give every child an equal chance at learning, or the difference in opportunities available at high wealth and high poverty schools. Or what can help students feel like school is a place where they belong.

Our kids need to study hard, and read everything they can. But I think it helps to have a brightly colored, brand-new shirt that you can pull over your head, something that proclaims that you are a part of the school you go to every day. Not something that your parents bought you (or, worse, couldn't afford to buy you) but something that you earned yourself.

So if we can raise the money, we'll try the T-shirt program again next year. Wish us luck – or better yet, send us a contribution!

All our great T-shirt designs are done by Little Shiva (, a former Charlotte resident now living in Belgium. We love her work! Thanks also to the folks at T-Shirts Plus, who do such a great job with the printing.

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