Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Girls gain confidence with a little class

Takoma Park Middle School program helps build self-esteem through etiquette

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Meredith Suniewick⁄Special to The Gazette
At Takoma Park Middle School, (from left) Hillary Yeboab, 11, Genesis Nuñez, 13, Tsion Mengesh, 13, and Rajan Negassa, 13, arrange table settings in an after-school program that teaches dining etiquette, aims to improve self-esteem and helps girls make the right choices.
Genesis Nuñez is appalled by the dining standards of her classmates. More than half of the girls around her have raised their hands to the teacher’s question: ‘‘How many think we don’t need good table manners in the school cafeteria?”

‘‘Yeah, you do! You don’t want to see anybody chewing with their mouth full!” the 13-year-old exclaims at her peers.

Nuñez, a Takoma Park resident, is one of about 20 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls who have been meeting after school Wednesdays in the computer room of Takoma Park Middle School to get the basics on etiquette and practice using those good manners to build confidence and self-esteem.

The pilot program, titled ‘‘Every Girl Can,” was developed by the school’s PTA co-president Yasmin Anderson-Smith, who is also the president of Bowie-based KYMS Image International, an image and branding consulting firm. The program, for girls in grades 6 through 8, is sponsored by RecExtra, a Montgomery County Department of Recreation initiative that funds after-school curricula in all 38 middle schools.

The program is free for the girls, whom Anderson-Smith said already have stories to tell about using what they have learned from her instruction outside the classroom.

‘‘As I go along, I try to reinforce what we’ve already done the weeks before. ... The rest is up to them, to take things with them,” she said. ‘‘They really have to live it.”

The program includes 10 weeks of lessons on topics ranging from table setting to healthy eating to speaking with confidence and competence. In the 11th week, the girls will prepare for a closing ceremony May 2, when they will show their parents and school’s administrators what they have learned through a creative outlet, such as art, dance or poetry.

Last week, the focus was on dining etiquette, the dos and don’ts required for making a good impression during meals, a crash course on different ways of eating among other cultures and how to set the table for a formal meal. Not all the girls are attending the classes by choice. Many were ‘‘strongly encouraged” by school administrators or counselors to attend, said Renay Johnson, the school’s principal. Others were signed up by their parents.

‘‘If I’m not respectful, I get in trouble with my mom,” Takoma Park seventh-grader Nuñez said.

Marta Martinez, a 13-year-old from Silver Spring, said the homework the girls are given is a good way for them to express themselves. All participants receive journals in which they jot down their thoughts on the topic of the week to come. They are then asked to share those ideas out loud with the group.

‘‘You say stuff here that you normally wouldn’t ... it really helps the shy girls be more open about their feelings,” said Martinez, who was recommended to the program through her counselor.

Middle school is often the pivotal age for girls, a time when the ‘‘risk factors” associated with entering the teenaged years — alcohol, drugs, dating, violence — become more apparent, said Allison Stearns, director of Kensington Wheaton Youth Services, a program operated through the county’s Mental Health Association. Whether girls volunteer or are referred to after-school courses like ‘‘Every Girl Can” doesn’t matter, as long as they are comfortable enough to engage with program leaders as mentors, she said, and look candidly at issues like peer pressure and changing body image.

‘‘Girls at every school could benefit from the program,” said Emily McDonell, a teen specialist with the county’s Department of Recreation. McDonell said she hopes to eventually get Anderson-Smith to train others, so the program can be offered at other sites.

This summer, Anderson-Smith will lead a similar program on Montgomery College’s Rockville campus for middle school-aged boys, as well as girls. But the girls in her current class aren’t sure it would work for the boys they know.

‘‘My brother, he’s 8 ... he’s always jumping around at dinner, can’t sit still,” Nuñez said. ‘‘The boys ... oh no, they would not even do this.”