Four years ago, South Allegheny Elementary founded an after-school club for girls in sixth grade called Girl Talk, which gives the girls a chance to bond in a social setting after school.
The club sponsored a variety of activities and became such a hit with the girls that it left the boys in sixth grade wondering why they didn't have a similar club.
This year, the boys got their wish with the founding of Gladiator Guys.
Grant money the school received from the Staunton Farm and Grable foundations and a School-Based Behavioral Health Grant through the state Education Department allowed principal Alisa King to pay stipends to three teachers -- Michael Mayer, Jack McLaughlin and Dominic DeBellis -- to be the new club's sponsors. Grant money also is being used to buy supplies and snacks.
About half of the approximately 60 boys in sixth grade have joined the club, which meets every other Wednesday.
As with the girls' club, Gladiator Guys is aimed at building self-esteem and strengthening relationships among the students at a time when bullying and social isolation appear to peak in schools.
"We are teaching social acceptance through peer interaction," Mrs. King said.
The principal noted that students participating in the program come from all of the communities that make up the district: Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue.
"You have kids participating who wouldn't typically have a chance to see each other after school because of the geographic distance," Mrs. King said.
She said the Girl Talk club has had a positive influence on the sixth-grade girls in the years since it started, an influence that has followed them to the middle school.
"The middle school has actually told us they can see a difference in how the girls interact with each other when they get there," Mrs. King said.
At last week's Gladiator Guys session, the activity was sanding and staining wooden birdhouses that will be hung in the school's Harmony Habitat. Other club activities have included gym time, board games, creating anti-bullying posters for the school and a speaker on Internet safety and cyberbullying.
At the beginning of last week's session, the wooden birdhouses were distributed and Mr. Mayer demonstrated how to sand them smooth before staining them. Some of the boys questioned why the hole was so small, and Mr. McLaughlin explained the size was to keep snakes out of the birdhouses.
The room then became a flurry of excitement and activity as the boys sanded and stained with enthusiasm. Some appeared to be experts at handling sandpaper and paint brushes, while others admitted they were new at this.
"The energy level among the boys is always high," Mr. DeBellis said.
After their main activity, the boys have a snack and some time to wind down with a game before their parents pick them up at 5 p.m.
While working on their birdhouses, the boys talked about how the club has helped them to get to know each other better.
For George Billingsley, 11, the club couldn't have come at a better time. He transferred this year to South Allegheny Elementary from St. Joseph School in Port Vue. "It's giving me a chance to get to know everybody a lot faster," George said.
Christian Winzek and Shawn Dainty, both 11, were already friends during the school day and sometimes visit each other's homes outside of school. But Gladiator Guys gives them another chance to spend time together having fun.
Both boys said they initially were hesitant about staying after school. But one meeting changed their minds.
"I didn't know it would be this much fun," Shawn said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-851-1512. First Published February 10, 2011 11:15 AM