At Trinity Elementary School in Southeast Los Angeles, a group of fifth-grade girls donning wide-brimmed hats sat down for a spot of afternoon tea.
For many, it was their first tea party, but each one knew to place their napkins on their laps and keep their elbows off the table. They even knew how to stimulate conversation, asking questions of their neighbors and always maintaining eye contact. Seven weeks of etiquette training with the Crown Jewel Club had taught them well.
Jane Phillips started the club four years ago after a fellow teacher pointed out her impeccable manners. "She felt that was something her students were really lacking," explained Phillips. "So she wanted me to teach a class on etiquette and manners."
Four years later, the club has expanded its efforts to multiple schools across South Los Angeles and attracted a host of volunteers and supporters, including Councilwoman Jan Perry.
"You are role models for me," Perry told the girls at a recent afternoon tea party. "I'm just so impressed with all of you — your maturity, your grace, your sophistication. Your manners are just exceptional."
The club focuses on providing training to "at-risk girls" with the intent of improving self-esteem and inspiring academic achievement. Trinity Elementary School, which is composed almost solely of Latino students, has an English language proficiency rate of under 30 percent. Around 93 percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged homes.
But Phillips says that all children, regardless of socio-economic status, are "at risk" of low self esteem and can benefit from the confidence boost that etiquette training provides.
"They know they can go into any social situation and feel good about themselves," said Phillips. "All children need that."
Throughout the seven-week program, the girls learn how to behave in social settings, from formal introductions and conversation to table manners. The education also reaches beyond the classroom and transcends into the home, says Phillips, with take-home leaflets offered in Spanish and English for parents and community members.
"The golden rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated," said student Jennifer Sanchez.
But there are a host of rules to learn throughout the course, and homework assignments are given each week.
School counselor Sally Lieberman asked the girls to share their knowledge with attendees at the afternoon tea with a quick-fire round of top table manners. "Don't eat until everyone is served," said student Andrea Vargas. "Don't lick your fingers," said a girl across the room. "Don't chew your gum at the table," said another.
To help facilitate discussion while attendees sipped from china cups and nibbled scones, Phillips and her volunteers decked the tables with "conversation cards." Each girl asked and answered ice-breaker questions with their adult sponsors and one another. "Name a job you would never want to do no matter how much you got paid," read one card. "Selling beer," responded Lovely Lopez. "I would never do that even if I get paid a lot because it's bad for people."
The Crown Jewel Club has a number of corporate sponsors, from AT&T to The Manhattan Beach Women in Business Committee. They have also received thousands of dollars in donations from various organizations and supporters, including L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe and The Good News Foundation.
The club also organizes a number of fundraisers, the most recent of which was the "Jewels and Jesters" comedy show in Hermosa Beach on Friday, Feb.26.
Phillips hopes that in the years to come she will be able to extend the program to middle and high school girls.
"We have almost 200 schools that want it," said Phillips. "It's just all a matter of funding."
For the students, referred to lovingly as "gems" by Phillips, it's a chance to make new friends and socialize, as well as learn a few things about being what it traditionally means to be a "lady." One parent said that her daughter was so inspired by the program that she was sharing her knowledge at home with her sister and teaching herself to sew. But old values are fused with a sense of empowerment, says Phillips.
By the end of the program, once shy girls can look anyone in the eye and proudly introduce themselves.
"Love is the most important thing," said Phillips. "When you treat yourself with love and treat other people with love — that's the answer to everything."