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Making the Grade: Teacher adds ‘Dress for Success’ to curriculum

Walk the halls of most middle schools, and if boys are wearing ties, and girls are decked out in dresses, that usually means it’s picture day – unless you drop by Flat Rock Middle in Tyrone. Every Wednesday, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders in the school’s business education computer science classes practice what employers call a “soft skill:” dressing for success.

The importance of dressing appropriately is a lesson they’ve learned not just from their their teacher, Ashley Hare, who launched the once-a-week program at the Fayette County school last year.

“We had a speaker who told us one of the main reasons there are so many openings is because people dress inappropriately,” she said. “They also come in late, don’t look their managers in the eye and don’t shake hands – soft skills that are hard to find in this generation that would text rather than hold a conversation.”

Last year, Hare’s students staged a version of “Shark Tank” to sell ideas they came up with in her class. “I saw early on they didn’t have these soft skills down,” she said. “They needed to pitch their businesses, to shake my hand, to look me in the eye, to hold a conversation and to dress the part.”

Hare created a Power Point to show students specific examples of how professionals dress. “We looked at business attire for a job interview, and we talked about how you’re not going to get hired in sweat pants and jeans – maybe not even business casual. You have to show up dressed to impress.”

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Conscious that many of Flat Rock’s students may not be able to afford suits or dresses, Hare came up with a “business casual” code that earns sixth and seventh graders extra credit but is mandatory for the oldest students. The boys’ list includes collared shirts, non-demin pants and non-athletic shoes; girls can wear suits, knee-length skirts, long pants, blouses and dress shoes.

“Most of them rise to at least that standard,” said Hare. “They come in saying, ‘Look at me! I have a tie and a blazer!’ And they more confidence in themselves.”

Eighth-grader Lourdes Cervantes-Dixon had to dig into her closet for something different to wear on Wednesdays, other than her usual jeans and sneakers. “I had some dresses,” said the 13-year-old who aspires to work in the medical field. “I’ve worn them with some flats. I like doing it and getting credit.”

Principal Jade Bolton was unsure how students would react to the program when it was launched last year, but the response has been positive.

“You’d think no 12- or 13-year-old would want to do that, given the casualness that’s so trendy with middle school students,” she said. “But we’ve seen changes in their behavior and how they think of themselves. This year, we’re seeing other students doing it, too. Our football team now dresses up on certain days, and other groups are catching on. To look a little nicer is different, and kids like different.”

With Dress for Success now in it’s second year and getting more serious attention, Hare has also paired with the local high school to spread the program.

“If we raise the standard high enough, students will rise to it,” she said. “And it’s true that how students perceive themselves changes just by wearing a different outfit.”

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