A classroom of shrieking middle school boys at Hope Partnership School in North Philadelphia went radio silent when George Stevenson began to speak.

“I’m gonna tell you what happened to me on Monday,” he started. “Mr. George got caught in a shootout.” He then launched into a story and impromptu Q&A session about the violent incident he’d witnessed.

Stevenson was finishing up a lesson for the seven boys about making things right before it’s too late. Along with partners Bobby Hall and Ray Haynes, Stevenson, a former professional model, runs an after school initiative called Connecting the Dots.

It teaches middle school boys confidence, discipline and organization using an unorthodox vehicle:  Fashion.

“What our program is designed to do is to change their mindset,” Hall said. Along with lessons on the best way to tie ties and shine shoes, other nuggets of wisdom are imparted. “We teach them that there’s options. There’s always another way to do something.”

About 18 boys in fifth through eighth grades are participating in Connecting the Dots this year. Real Men Speak, the nonprofit that manages the program, got a grant to purchase new outfits for the students so that by their culminating May showcase, every student will own a new suit, button-up shirt, tie and shoes.

To prep and prime, the boys practice strutting one of the four types of runway walks: “Preppy,” “New Yorker,” “European” and “BET” Students get to select which one they’ll perform this spring. Sabree Woodard, 11, chose the last style because, “it’s flashy.”

Like they did in the winter mid-year celebration, they’ll be doing tie and shoe shine demonstrations and catwalking. All this happens in front of peers, parents, teachers and school staff.

“On that day, they’re just so proud,” Hall said. “Their peers are screaming at them like they’re stars.”

Achievement unlocked: ‘How it feels to be in a suit’

Hope Partnership is located in the racially and ethnically diverse Fairhill neighborhood. More than half the population lives below the poverty line; the median annual income is about $15k, according to census data.

At a school where nearly the entire student body is Black, Stevenson said he used visuals of the Congo Dandies, a group of economically poor but sartorially rich men in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, to break down gender-normative stereotypes about well-groomed men of color. Read more