A Tale of School Uniforms in Silicon Valley

An article by guest writer Lam Chih Chao. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the Post.

Just because I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for decades, I’m often asked by fellow Singaporeans: what are its secrets as a wellspring of innovation? Of course, I’m still seeking answers, but a tiny, modest middle school just a couple of miles from the original Hewlett Packard Garage may shine some light…

Consider the simple concept of school uniforms. Growing up in Singapore, I never gave it much thought. It was like the air we breathed. Sure, mine was a little dorky with metal buttons that were supposed to be shiny (🙏🏽Ah Sim for painstakingly washing them every day!) and during a crucial adolescent period, we looked longingly when some other school boys were wearing long pants while we were still in shorts! However, I never questioned why we wore uniforms – after all, every school kid wore them…

Mine were similar to these depicted in local artist Green Zeng’s historical series

Back in Silicon Valley, twenty-two years ago, Kathleen Bennett was busy fundraising to will The Girls’ Middle School (GMS for short) into existence and school uniforms were also the last thing on her mind. After all, she was envisioning a progressive school centered around the child, where creativity would flourish; why would such a school enforce a rigid dress code?

But all that changed when she chanced upon speaking to the housekeeper of a Stanford professor. The housekeeper had a child who was a scholarship student at a private school. Kathleen asked the housekeeper for advice on what it would take for a student from a lower income background to thrive at GMS. The housekeeper had one advice: School Uniforms!

The reasoning was simple but profound: Uniforms are a great social equalizer, allowing students to focus on learning and collaboration rather than competing on the latest exorbitant whims of fashion.

Moreover, Kathleen’s rationale for GMS was that the middle school years were a crucial period for girls. Studies showed that it was during these years (11-14 years old) that many girls start losing interest, confidence and focus on “hardcore” subjects like Math and Science. Was it in part related to undue peer emphasis on physical appearance and fashion upmanship?

Kathleen took this advice to heart. But when she proposed school uniforms to her fledgling school which had only one classroom-size of confirmed students, she encountered strident opposition from a German family. To this family, khaki school uniforms conjured nightmares of Nazi fascism!

Kathleen passionately wanted a school where girls weren’t just told what to do (or wear!) She wanted them to figure things out themselves and speak out for their own long-term interests. But she also genuinely wanted a school that was inclusive and welcoming to families of all backgrounds and income. Finally, losing just one family’s commitment could threaten the financial viability of her nascent school, only months away from starting up.

What to do?

Innovation often springs from such dilemmas where the obvious choices ask for sacrifices in cherished values. The lazy way is to accept a choice and its attendant trade-offs. The harder way is to think deeply about the issues and distill what truly matters.

The solution GMS came up with was brilliant: the school uniform would simply be a T-Shirt! Tops i.e. the T-Shirt would require a GMS logo, but bottoms were left to the students’ creativity.

This “un-uniform” uniform was a practical solution that cut the Gordian knot while upholding GMS’ deeply held values: the humble T-shirt helps ensure students don’t obsess over haute couture, while still leaving room to express individuality and creativity! Both the German family and the housekeeper felt they were being heard, laying the seeds for diversity in future cohorts.

At the surface, this inspired policy may appear to be completely serendipitous or even random happenstance. But on another level, it embodies principles as to why GMS is such a successful and highly sought after school today merely 20 years after its founding.

Just as the telephone functionality of today’s smartphone is often not its most important feature, the innovative GMS school uniform became a platform in which to rethink and improve upon many practices we have taken for granted. To this day, GMS continues to innovate:

Volunteer parents coordinate used uniform sales several times a year. Our daughter (who attends GMS) spent just US$19 for a year’s wardrobe including hoodies and jackets!

Each year, on the first day of school, teachers and staff host a fashion show welcoming all students, hilariously demonstrating the many ways to deck out in GMS regalia; yet again, inspiring students to think creatively beyond the staid “uniform”. It also models how what we wear can be the invisible glue that binds a community together, even as others use fashion to display a superiority complex.

In the summer, when regular school is over, summer school students make their own tie dyed T-Shirt versions of school “uniforms” with official GMS logo that they can wear throughout the school year and beyond.

In the Entrepreneurial Program, every seventh grader starts a “company” to sell a product. Last year, one such company started selling made-to-order school T-shirts.

And this year, GMS’ Gender and Sexuality Alliance club started a fundraiser with a T-shirt designed by a 6th Grader!

Not too surprisingly, there is still discontent in “paradise”. Some girls pine for traditional school uniforms while others wish for total freedom in dress taste. But in dissatisfaction lay the seeds for improvement. How will the “uniform” evolve over the next decade?

In a world where every organization is shouting “Innovate!” and “Design Thinking” from the rooftops, it is refreshing to find a middle school applying such principles without fuss and fanfare: thinking intensely about values we hold dear and yet pragmatically coming out with solutions that fit in our modern world; focusing on what is in the child’s best interest but also stepping back to listen and let a child figure out herself; and in the words of current GMS Principal Jennifer Ayer, “we are getting better at the basics of running a school but we must retain the spirit of trying new things!”

I hope that our daughter will treasure her years at GMS and can’t wait to see what thoughtful and useful things she can help will into our world!

About the Writer

Lam Chih Chao started his career as a software coolie. Unable to hold jobs at large organizations such as Apple, eBay and the National Computer Board, he helped start several technology companies including ClickOver, ShoppingList and currently Next Small Things. He traces his love for technology back to the days he picketed in front of his parents’ bedroom to lobby for an Apple ][ computer (together with his younger brother – watch out for forthcoming article!)

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