A handful of boys sat around a table in a far corner of an empty library at Steel Valley Middle School. They laughed and joked, going back and forth about their opinions. The topic: The difference between swagger and confidence.
"Having swag means you're too cocky."
"Nah, it means having everything matching, head to toe."
The discussion was part of an hourlong biweekly meeting for members of the Pursuit at the middle school, a mentoring program based on a motivational book written by former Steelers wide receiver Wesley Lyons. Mr. Lyons meets with the students in a small group every other week to discuss "character-building" topics such as self-esteem, positive behavior and relationship-building.
On his website, Mr. Lyons describes the Pursuit as a program targeting "at-risk students who need extra encouragement to excel" and "provides a platform for the students to acquire additional knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to be successful individuals and life-long learners."
About 150 students participate in the program in three school districts: West Mifflin Area, Steel Valley and Woodland Hills. Students are targeted based on three determining factors: grades, attendance and behavior.
"His focus is basically that gap between teachers, the students and outside places and factors that impact them," said Dan Castagna, superintendent of the West Mifflin Area School District. "He's that emergency outlet that the kids need."
Donnie Bates, a seventh-grade student at Steel Valley Middle School, described Mr. Lyons as "like a teacher, but cooler." It was a standout day for Donnie when he was chosen to be part of the program.
"It was a shock when I got picked, because I never get picked for anything," Donnie said. "It felt good, that I get to be in a program with someone like him."
Program costs vary.
In West Mifflin, the program costs the district about $10,000 annually.
In Woodland Hills, the school board in October approved $19,000 for the program at the high school, funded by a Heinz Endowments grant. The school board approved another $10,000 for the junior high school, funded by a Keystones to Opportunity state grant.
Steel Valley administrators could not be reached for comment about the cost of the program for its three participating schools: Barrett Elementary School, Steel Valley Middle School and an alternative education program at Batch Center.
This is the first year for the program, which started in October.
Mr. Lyons is a North Braddock native and Woodland Hills graduate who played at West Virginia University and was on the Steelers' preseason 2011 team. In 2012, he wrote his book, "The Pursuit With Patience," and he sent information about it to area school districts.
Eventually, he said, he started receiving calls from principals to do motivational speeches. The students had such a positive response that they wanted him to make the visits more regular, with an accompanying structured curriculum.
"That's what my program is about," Mr. Lyons said. "It's about building relationships with the students."
Woodland Hills School District has the largest and most developed form of the program. More than 100 students at the junior high and high schools are involved in the Wolverine Pursuit, where students meet weekly with Mr. Lyons for mentorship and peer discussions.
Mr. Lyons' book is being read as part of the sophomore English class and several reading workshop classes, which are more of an elective. The high school library also has more than 500 copies of the book available.
Donnie, who wants to be a prosecuting attorney someday, said that since joining the program his grades have gone up, and he has someone to help him deal with difficult situations. He said Mr. Lyons helped him develop a plan for how he can get to law school.
"He makes me push myself to do things," Donnie said. "He told me the word 'can't' shouldn't be in my vocabulary. I want to be like him when I grow up."
The most important part of his job, Mr. Lyons said, is building relationships with the students and helping them transition, especially from middle to high school.
"I think it's important to have a positive African-American male role model in their lives," Mr. Lyons said. "Some don't have a father figure or someone to look up to or even just someone to talk to."
Students need to see and interact with successful leaders other than their teachers, said Tara Reis, a Woodland Hills school board member.
"When you can expose kids to community members who are in the private sector or business world saying, 'Here's how I got there,' the benefit is pretty significant," she said. "Those kids in the middle, they really could go either way, so there's a need there to offer them support. He's worth his weight in gold."
With votes for 2014-15 budgets due June 30, many districts are facing possibilities of program and teacher cuts. Mr. Castagna, West Mifflin Area superintendent, said he will recommend that the school board keep and maybe expand the Pursuit program.
Ms. Reis said she hopes Woodland Hills doesn't have to choose between teacher furloughs and mentoring programs such as the Pursuit.
At its April legislative meeting, the Woodland Hills board voted to approve possible furloughs of teaching and support staff, pending further review of the district's budget.
"As wonderful as it is to have outside people come in to encourage the kids, enough can't be said for the teachers, and the day-to-day investments they put into our kids," Ms. Reis said.
Clarece Polke: email@example.com, 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.