Sharply dressed in a white-collared shirt, a black bow-tie and dress pants, eighth-grader Antonio Richardson defines integrity for his peers at the Eighth Grade Academy in Cahokia.
"It's being a role model," he said.
Antonio and 24 classmates come together at least twice a month for Gentlemen's Club meetings.
The focus of the club is to increase academics, improve behavior and decrease absences, said Debra Tippett, chief academic officer for Cahokia School District 187.
The lesson on integrity led by school security officer Kenneth Williams, a club facilitator, is part of the curriculum developed by Stephen Peters, who founded the club with the Peters Group Foundation in 1996.
Peters flew in for the induction ceremony hosted by the district April 1. During the induction ceremony, Antonio and his peers received official Gentlemen's Club ties, which have the initials GC monogrammed on them.
Club members, who applied to be part of the club, are required to wear dress clothes on club meeting days. "They just look like they are dressed for success," Tippett said.
The club has adult facilitators, but it's entirely student-run. "They have officers in the club, and students can elect to vote you out of the club," Tippett said. "If you are not setting a good example, you can't be in the club."
The Eighth Grade Academy isn't the only school in Cahokia with a Gentlemen's Club. The Cahokia School of Choice, Huffman Elementary and Penniman Elementary also have clubs, and their members took part in the induction ceremony as well.
Young ladies aren't left out. For them, there's a Ladies' Club. The ladies in the clubs at Huffman and Penniman elementary schools participated in the April 1 induction ceremony, and each member received a pin.
Huffman Principal Melissa Rebmann said she has seen positive changes in the 50 third- through fifth-graders who are members of the Ladies' and Gentlemen's clubs.
"I can already see more leadership qualities in the students," she said.
Club members are receiving less discipline referrals and school attendance is improving, according to Rebmann. "It's been wonderful for our students," she said.
In all, Tippett said 150 students in District 187 were welcomed into the Gentlemen's and Ladies' clubs during the April 1 induction ceremony.
"We are hoping this is something we can continue to do every year," Tippett said.
The clubs not only follow the curriculum outlined by Peters, guest speakers are invited to attend club meetings at the Cahokia schools.
Cahokia High School graduate Aaron Blanks, 34, of Lebanon recently spoke to the 25 club members at the Eighth Grade Academy. Blanks is the manager of the driver's license facility in East St. Louis.
He talked about his difficult childhood and how he struggled to cope with the loss of his father at the age of 8 and the financial hardships his family, which included eight other children, endured.
He told the eighth-graders to always have a dream and a vision. "Even at this age, if you don't dream to be a politician, principal or professional athlete, then it won't happen," Blanks said.
He encouraged the young men to focus on their education. "I tasted success in sports, but I didn't put that same step forward with my education," Blanks said.
He played basketball, track and football and earned a full-ride scholarship to college for football. "I flunked out," Blanks said.
It took hard work and dedication, but Blanks was able to turn his life around and finish his degree and land a job with the Illinois Secretary of State Office.
"It's not one that gets a lot of respect, but it's an important and serious profession," he said. "When life decided to punch me in the mouth when I flunked out, I didn't give up."
Blanks told the students to never settle. "Nothing can stop you. Nothing at all," he said.
WHAT DO MEMBERS THINK?
Eighth-grader Tevion Wright, 13, said the Gentlemen's Club has taught him a lot: "Don't give up and always follow your dreams and always be a gentlemen wherever you go; always follow your own path and don't let anybody tell you what you can't do."
Rickell Buchanan, 15, said the club has inspired him. "It shows me I can have a future," he said. "It shows me what I should be doing. It's better than being on the streets." He described club members as "like brothers" to him.
Dylan Triplett, 13, said the adults who help with the club are role models. "I can look up to anybody in here," he said. "If I have a problem, I come in here and it makes my whole day better."
Antonio, 14, also enjoys the support from the club facilitators. "They want us to turn out to be someone in life. They really want us to be future doctors and lawyers," he said. "It's good we have teachers that support us like that."
Julian Smith, 15, said he likes the club at the Eighth Grade Academy. "I enjoy being in the club, because I like following my dreams, being treated with respect and showing others respect," he said. "It teaches you how to be a gentlemen and how to be in life."
Javion Liddell, 15, concurs. "Through the club, it started teaching me how to treat others with respect and do better things in life," he said. "I think this a good club for people who want to be gentlemen and do something with their life."
Heshimu Wilson, 14, said the club caused him to re-evaluate his actions. "Gentlemen's Club is very positive. It's made me think of some of the things I have been doing in life," he said.
Eric Owens, 14, said the Gentlemen's Club is "bettering us for the real world."
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.