Be nice. Dress right. Respect yourself.
Struggling girls in Pinellas who don't get that message enough at home may soon hear it at school.
The new Girlfriends of Pinellas County program will use mentors and community service projects to tackle everything from chronic tardiness to inappropriate clothing — all with an eye toward improving academics.
"We'd like to help eliminate some of the bad choices girls are making in our schools," Teresa Anderson, principal at Azalea Middle and Girlfriends co-chairwoman, told School Board members during a recent presentation.
The program will unite and standardize a hodge-podge of similar programs now operating independently in 25 to 30 schools. To date, about 90 schools have expressed interest.
A who's who list of influential people is backing the effort, including Bob McIntyre, president of Ditek Corp. and immediate past chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation; Maria Nieves Edmonds, head of the Hispanic Leadership Council; and Pinellas County Judge Myra Scott McNary.
The program will rely largely on private money.
"It's going to fill a gap," said McIntyre, whose wife, Joann McIntyre, and daughter, Melissa Lostraglio, are helping with Girlfriends. "I think we can catch these young people at an early age ... and get them back on track."
Girls who commit to the program must perform at least two community service hours per month. They'll create career plans. They'll get tutors if needed.
They'll also be monitored for what they wear.
"At no time should any young lady in Girlfriends have on clothes that are too tight, too revealing, or that do not represent what a young lady should wear," says the group's handbook. And on periodic "professional attire days," they must wear knee-length skirts, pastel-colored shirts and "panty hose the color of their legs," according to the group's presentation to the School Board.
"When the Girlfriends dress up, it inspires other girls," Anderson said. "It really changes the culture on campus."
The change isn't meant to be just cosmetic.
Girlfriends is aiming for 90 percent of participants to have better grades and attendance and fewer referrals. It wants 80 percent of them to "be encouraged to enroll in rigorous or advanced level courses" and earn C's or better there.
When you change attitudes and attire, "you set the tone, you set the bar," said School Board member Robin Wikle.
Like 5000 Role Models, a Pinellas program for at-risk boys, Girlfriends will offer mentors.
Board member Janet Clark said she was concerned about overworked teachers' being asked by girls to serve as mentors — and she and other board members suggested community groups that could be tapped for help.
But board member Mary Brown, a driving force behind Girlfriends, said that won't be a problem because teachers will decide if they want to volunteer.
Brown also had a response for those who say schools shouldn't be teaching things like personal hygiene and self-respect.
"Parents should be doing it, but we're not going to hop up on parents," she said.
"We're going to do what we can do ... to help these girls start understanding that you have to learn how to be responsible for you."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.