San Diego The Colegio de Bachilleres high school sits about five miles east of downtown Tijuana on the Vía Rápida, the highway that straddles the Tijuana River channel. The campus looks like public high schools in San Diego -- two concrete-and-glass, three-level classroom buildings face each other across a landscaped quad 50 feet wide and 200 feet long, students hustle from classroom to classroom, a maintenance crew repairs some old concrete steps. But there are differences. There's no student parking lot jammed full of cars, for one. And, for two, the 1000 students hanging out in the rain-soaked quad and congregating in cliques on the hallway balconies wear uniforms, something you could see at only one public high school in San Diego County.
"From my point of view," Jesús Alberto Osuna Olivas, the school's director, says, "having a uniform takes care of two things: first, it develops a sense of belonging among the students. Second, it helps us provide security for our students because we can identify persons that are nonstudents."
Osuna, 49, is dressed in pressed tan corduroys and a wool coat over an olive green dress shirt. His brown dress shoes have been polished to the shining point, and his spiky black hair strains against the gel holding it to the left. On his lapel is pinned a tiny Mexican flag, the flagstaff of which is a map of the Baja California peninsula. He sits in a sunny second-floor office overlooking the Vía Rápida and the Tijuana River. Though he uses the word "uniform," Osuna explains that student clothing at the Colegio de Bachilleres is dictated by a very limited dress code. "They have several options in order not to just put them in one specific uniform. For example, for the boys it is black jeans or black Dickies. And the top part could be a white dress shirt, a white polo shirt, or just the T-shirt. The T-shirt can be blue, gray, or white, but it has to have the name or logo of the school. Shoes have to be what they call school shoes, which are a specific type of shoe sold in all the stores here, or any color tennis shoe. Sometimes, the kids want to come in flip-flops or sandals, but they would be sharing their odors with 40 other people in class. That is why we don't allow them. We want a pleasant atmosphere in the classroom.
"The girls," Osuna continues, "wear a plaid uniform skirt, or they can wear black jeans or black Dickies. It is almost the same as the boys', but they can wear a white blouse or a white women's polo shirt, or they can wear the T-shirt too. And then school shoes or tennis shoes. Both boys and girls have the option to wear a sports uniform, which consists of sweatpants and a jacket, like a warm-up suit."
While in the United States school uniforms at the high school level usually indicate private school, in Mexico that's not the case. "Here," says Osuna, "it's a custom to wear uniforms in public schools of all levels. It starts in kindergarten and goes through elementary school and junior high. And when they come into this school the uniform custom persists. The students don't think of it as an obligation but as a custom."
Across the border in the U.S., Hector Espinoza, principal of San Ysidro High School, says he wanted to create that custom of uniform wearing when he decided to employ uniforms at the five-year-old high school. "Before the school even opened," Espinoza says, "I was given the opportunity to come in and look at ideas on how to build a school, to develop a climate, develop a school culture. I believe philosophically, and also as a parent of kids that went to uniform school, that they work in terms of setting not only the appearance standard but also setting the climate of academics, if you will, on the campus. And we feed in from San Ysidro School District, and they have uniforms as well. So it was kind of a natural progression into the high school. The only difference with the high school I recognize was that the kids needed a little bit more of a variety."
Similar to the Colegio de Bachilleres, San Ysidro's uniform policy is really a strict dress code. "It is not just a standard blue pants or skirt with a white top," Espinoza says. "In our case, they can wear skirts, shorts, or pants that are blue, black, or gray. But the top has to be a white collared shirt. They can be polo shirts or dress shirts; it's up to them. We have no rules about shoes, but state law says they have to wear close-toed shoes, they can't wear flip-flops or sandals."
Asked what the noticeable result, if any, of having a uniform policy at his school has been, Espinoza, who was principal at Hilltop Middle School before moving to San Ysidro High, answers, "It's in the ambience of our school. In any high school, the tendency of kids sometimes is to compare themselves to each other -- who is wearing the $100 pants or the $100 shoes, that type of thing. I think that has really diminished here. As an example, there is very little tension here in terms of the way people identify themselves. There are cliques, but because of the standard uniform, it is hard to identify the cliques. Fighting is almost nonexistent on this campus. We did not have a fight on this campus in the first two and a half years that we were open. And we had fewer than five fights all of last year. There are high schools -- you read about them in the paper -- that have two fights a day."
Though there are school districts in California -- though none in San Diego County -- that have implemented uniform use through 12th grade, San Ysidro High, Espinoza says, is the only "stand-alone high school that has done that." As such, Espinoza receives frequent media interview requests about his uniform policy. The school was part of a Harvard study on school uniforms, and "I've gotten a lot of calls [from school administrators] from out of state, Arizona for instance. But interestingly enough, I've gotten no calls from schools in our district [Sweetwater] or from any other schools in the county."
And what has he told those who have called? That "it has been phenomenal," he answers. "We did a random poll of parents, and basically it was, 'Do you support the uniform policy, or do you not support it?' And of the 1100 responses, about 99.8 percent of the poll came back favorable. They like it. The parents like it. Needless to say, the kids don't like it that much, but I am really proud of our kids because they respect it. And we reward their respect with non-uniform days. A few Fridays out of the year, rather than starting at 9:00, we start at 10:00, so teachers can do planning and things like that. On those Fridays the kids get to come out of uniform."
There are no non-uniform days at the Colegio de Bachilleres, and there are strict penalties -- including suspension and expulsion -- for persistent uniform violations. But Osuna says he tries to cultivate a relaxed atmosphere surrounding the issue. For instance, if girls have piercings outside of one in the earlobe or boys have any piercings whatsoever -- both against the uniform code -- "I request that they take them out and give them to me. When school is over, they can come and pick them up from me."
The uniform code at his school, Osuna says, is less rigid than at most Mexican high schools'. "We want to give them several options," he explains, "so that within the restrictions they can also participate in the integration of the school and experience a bit more freedom. We try at this age, because they've had 11 years of uniform culture, to let them loose a little bit."
Why not just toss the uniforms and let the kids wear what they want, as they do at most American high schools? "Because," Osuna answers, "culturally, we are not prepared for that freedom. In my opinion, a lot of students would lose track of the fact that they come to school to study."