Sandra Abarca plopped on the ledge of an Old Navy window inside Valley Plaza mall, taking a break from shopping to rest her weary feet and check messages on her phone.
A few school districts in Kern County already have started classes, but most will begin the 2012-13 school year in the next week or two. For parents such as Abarca, time is running out to buy school clothes, but she wasn't stressed about it Friday as she perused the mall's offerings with her four children.
"I like back-to-school shopping," she said. "I remember when I was a kid. That was something exciting, having new clothes and starting off the school year with new stuff."
But not everyone is enamored of this annual ritual.
"It's a drag," complained Maximus Pena, 11, as he was leaving the mall with his mother and brothers.
For parents whose children wear uniforms to school, the job of obtaining school clothes is at least somewhat simpler. And that may be why, nationally, the wearing of uniforms is growing.
The National Retail Federation surveys parents every year to get a sense of how strong the fall shopping season will be, and one of the questions they're asked is whether their children wear uniforms.
UNIFORMS ON THE RISE
The number of those who said yes has risen fairly steadily from 15.8 percent in 2007 to 22.5 percent in 2012.
The survey also found average K-12 back-to-school spending is projected to be $688.62 per household, up 14.08 percent from $603.63 last year.
Caryl Schweitzer, 52, is the mother of a 15-year-old daughter starting her sophomore year at private Catholic school Garces Memorial High School. Before that, her daughter was at Downtown Elementary School, a public school with uniforms.
Schweitzer is sure uniforms save her money.
"They're not inexpensive, but they're very durable," she said. "A couple of kids have told me they've only ever bought two or three skirts the whole time they were there."
And with uniforms, there's no competition with other students to outshine each other on the whimsical, short-lived trends of fashion, Schweitzer said.
"At Garces, you have to buy from one specific vendor," she said. "Everybody's the same, and you don't have any gang clothes or anything inappropriate. Kids at this age, they really want to push the envelope with clothes that are inappropriate."
Schweitzer's daughter Nanette said she doesn't mind wearing a uniform to school.
"They're not ugly or anything," she said. "And even on the free dress days, people usually stick to the Garces colors."
Uniform policies in Kern County vary from mandatory uniforms to optional ones to no uniform at all.
Bakersfield City School District is among the districts with a uniform policy in theory, but it's up to individual principals to enforce it, and parents can apply for a waiver if they don't want to participate.
At Downtown Elementary School, student uniforms include various combinations of white, navy and khaki clothing.
"There are lots of different combinations available, so they can still have a lot of variety," said Principal Noreen Barthelmes.
DO THEY HELP OR HURT?
Proponents of uniforms laud them as a way to even the economic playing field and avoid distractions from learning.
Whether that pays off academically is an open question. The issue has been studied extensively but conclusions vary widely, and critics dismiss many of the studies as flawed because of the demographic differences between non-uniformed students and the generally more affluent students who wear uniforms.
Scott Imberman, an associate professor of economics and education at Michigan State University, examined the issue two years ago when he taught at the University of Houston. He and fellow researchers looked at before and after performances of students at a large, urban public school that initiated a uniform dress code.
The transition didn't affect grades, but there was a slight improvement in attendance rates, particularly among girls.
"It could be that there's more competition to look better between girls than with boys," Imberman said. "Or it could be something as simple as it taking less time to get dressed in the morning."
The study didn't look at cost, which also is subject to debate.
"We have a lot of kids who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds who don't buy their clothes brand new," said Ken Chichester, assistant superintendent at the Greenfield Union School District in south Bakersfield.
Plus, uniform rules open up the issue of what to do with violators.
"Do you send kids home from school or make their parents come down, which is a hardship for parents who work or don't have transportation," he said. "I think it could probably be a chore for us to handle that process."
Kyle Self, a single father of three whose children don't wear uniforms, still thinks uniforms would make shopping easier.
"You don't have to worry about buying a bunch of clothes every year," he said. "Just buy a couple of uniforms and keep them clean."
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Bakersfield High School sophomore Samantha Gurrola, 14, doesn't wear a uniform and wants to keep it that way on principle.
"I feel like if you have to wear the same thing as everybody else, it's like a violation of your freedom," she said.
The ACLU agrees, and has filed lawsuits around the country challenging mandatory uniforms at public schools.
You can still achieve an appropriate learning environment without everyone looking the same, said Michael Zulfa, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Kern High School District.
"We do have a dress code," he said. "We make sure the environment on our campuses is conducive to learning, but it still gives our students a chance to express their individuality."
Precious few have as much leeway as 15-year-old Austyn Pena, however. Two of his brothers attend public school. He and another brother are home schooled.
"I could just wear my sleeping clothes all day if I wanted to," he said brightly. "Being lazy is the best."