It's not yet 8 o'clock in the morning at L.W. Conder Arts Integrated Magnet Elementary School, and Henrietta White-Huffalready is giving a pep talk.
"I want you all to have a fantastic day," she tells nearly 20 fourth- and fifth-grade girls gathered around tables. "I want those attitudes to perk up. I don't want to hear that you are talking out."
Then White-Huff, a longtime Conder teaching assistant, reminds them, "Remember, you are A-Plus Girls."
There may be a few sleepyheads in the bunch, but they are all eager to wear the lanyard and badge that distinguishes them as role models and leaders in this school of 650. So each morning they gather at 7:45 a.m. for a half-hour of discussions and lessons on life.
Never miss a local story.
The A-Plus Girls, a companion group to the Star Gents for boys, is just one of a myriad of mentoring programs aimed at developing leaders and stemming bad behavior before it starts.
As school funding has shrunk during the economic downturn, schools like Conder have gotten even more creative, applying for federal and state grants and looking to the community for an extra boost.
For Conder's students - 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a traditional indicator of poverty - those efforts are making a difference.
While it can be hard to report mentoring successes in terms of hard numbers, teachers and administrators anecdotally report better behavior.
Leaders hear children discuss long-term goals that include college.
While A-Plus Girls and Star Gents meet in the morning, many other Conder students participate in an after-school enrichment program known as SWIM, Students with Intelligent Minds.
"Under that umbrella we partner with USC," said assistant principal Alvera Butler. "Their kids basically work with our students every day after school in some capacity."
As part of the after-school program, Conder teachers tutor students after school at least an hour a day.
One day a week, children learn to swim. Another day, there is a meeting of BADD, Black Achievers Determined to be Different. There are Brownies and Girls Scouts that meet after school, and another troop that meets at 6 p.m.
While parents contribute to the enrichment, it is Conder's staff and USC who contribute the bulk of the mentoring effort there.
Conder is among a number of Richland 2 schools that are successful at winning grants and promoting leadership opportunities for students and teachers, said Arlene Bakutes, the district's grants coordinator.
"Conder has a lot of great qualities going for it," she said, including a principal open to new ideas. Many grants are aimed at schools like Conder, with a significant population of students who qualify for meals assistance and who also have numbers of students who are learning English as their second language.
A-Plus Girls and Star Gents are led by teachers and teaching assistants through a small grant. Students get into the program by teacher recommendation.
"I wish I could clone her," principal Patricia Watson said of White-Huff. She has seen a difference since the A-Plus Girls was organized four years ago.
"They are the queens of the hill and they get a little attitude with everybody," she says. "With the A-Plus Girls, you see a real change in attitude."
Marquitta Steele, 9, described her role as an A-Plus girl as "kids going around and doing fun stuff together." If she sees someone who needs some assistance, she helps them, whether its reading to them or picking up spilled books. The A-Plus Girls are mentors themselves as each one is paired with a younger student to guide.
Developing leaders, even among students who might not realize they have that potential, is the goal of the program.
"We see so much progress with them," Butler, the assistant principal, said. "It gives them that additional adult support that every child needs."
White-Huff is proactive during the day. If an A-Plus girl misbehaves enough so that a teacher e-mails her about the situation, White-Huff has a talk with the child.
"I tell them to write it out rather than act it out," she said.
The girls have a special song they sing and a hand signal that distinguishes them. Before White-Huff dismisses them for class, she reminds them, "You are supposed to be what? A positive role model."
And then she adds, "I'm going to be watching."
Ortega Missouri, a visual arts teacher at Conder, leads the Star Gents mentoring program for fourth- and fifth-grade boys, along with teaching assistant Terry Gilley. We talked about the results he sees:
How has your program made a difference?
"I can see it is making some improvements. They pretty much look at us for approval. They know we are watching them. We had a report from one of the teachers that one of the boys pulled out a chair for a girl. When the teacher commented on this, he said, 'Well, I'm a Star Gent.'"
Does the program translate to good grades?
"Yes, we go over the grades and talk to them about college. Last year, we had a few that were a little bit better. This year we are focusing on a lot of the boys that are productive, reliable and respectful."
Are you trying to quantify results?
"I think it is making a difference because a lot of the parents are asking us to let the boys be in it." (Last year, he said, a parent reported that a boy in the neighborhood who had been somewhat of a bully seemed to have changed.) "When you hear that from parents and people outside the school, that means we are making a difference."
You have many students at Conder from single-parent households. What is your overall goal for them?
"We are pretty much focused on that. We want to be a positive male role model in their life."