Walk into Robbinsdale Cooper High School on any Monday and Wednesday this fall, and you’ll see an unusual sight for a public high school: close to 300 young men dressed in shirts, ties and slacks. All of the students are participating in the school’s Dress for Success Program, which was started in February 2016 by Cooper head football coach and 9th grade assistant principal Willie Howard.
The program started after students on the football team began questioning how they were viewed in the larger school community.
“It started with a conversation with players asking why people think [they] can't have 4.0s because they play sports or because of the color of their skin,” says Howard, a former Minnesota Viking. “It was hard for students to internalize why an individual will stereotype without knowing any facts about them.”
With a school in Chicago as inspiration, the team and Howard decided to start the Dress for Success Program at Cooper.
“We just talked about throwing a shirt and tie on – it starts encouraging a conversation with those individuals who think negative,” Howard said. “Why are you wearing a shirt and tie? Hopefully these conversations can break down some barriers and [people] get to know that individual.”
While the program started with the football team, all students in the school are invited to participate. When it began, each football player recruited someone who wasn’t on the team to join in.
Mondays are known as Mindset Mondays, while Wednesdays are We Will Succeed Wednesdays. On Mondays, participating students wear shirts, ties and slacks. On Wednesdays, students wear slacks and polos, with shoes to match the polo. Howard says this gives students room to be creative with their dress, while also participating in the program. The expectation is students will participate during football season, but take time off during the winter while they are playing other sports. The basketball team and wrestling team also have their own dress-up days, says Howard.
For Onte Burns, an incoming senior and one of the football team’s captains, the program has been beneficial both on and off the field.
“It helps remind me that I am a leader in the building, and I need to take care of my grades in the classroom,” says Onte, a Plymouth resident. “It helps with following directions on the field and being responsible for who you are off the field.”
Onte says the team’s overall GPA has improved since the program began.
There is a community closet at the school for students who might not have access to dress clothes. A Go Fund Me account was set up, and the donations poured in. Howard said he hasn’t even had to ask for money recently because the community closet is so full of clothes.
“It has 400 shirts, almost 1,000 ties, and shoes,” Howard says. “Students can borrow one tie for Monday, exchange it the next day and get another one for the next outfit. They never have to walk around in the same outfit.”
Howard said it was important that the program start with the football team, because of the high profile the players have at the school. Howard says the program has grown into a “humungous club” with students even asking to borrow a shirt and tie for job interviews.
“It helps the students change the culture of being judged on what they are wearing,” Howard says. “It gives them more confidence.”
Interested in donating to Robbinsdale Cooper’s Community Closet?
The Dress for Success program has a Go Fund Me page here.