When fourth-grade teacher Montrell Evans started the Southern Gentleman program in 2017 at William Southern Elementary School, it had nearly everyone in the school talking about it and multiple students wanted to join.

It was a program that helped boys learn what it takes to be a gentleman.

But what about the girls?

Female students wanted to be a part of a similar program. That’s when physical education teacher Annie Dudek stepped in.

She took some ideas from Evans’ program and created Southern Belles, now in its second year.

“When they started the Southern Gentleman program, some of the girls asked, ‘Why isn’t there a program for us?’” Dudek said. “Then I thought, ‘We should do something.’”

She consulted with some of other staff members, and they jumped on board and volunteered to help. The Southern Belles group, which meets every Tuesday morning, focuses on teaching fourth- and fifth-grade students what it takes to be a lady and teaches about being kind to one another.

Before each meeting, the belles recrite a pledge based on the program’s acronym. They pledge to be: Brilliant Exceptional Ladies Learning and Encouraging Society. The Southern Gentleman wear dress shirts, ties and khaki pants; the girls wear dresses and bows.

“I told them as a P.E. teacher, if I can dress up, you can, too,” said Dudek, whose program has 25 members. “I wear dresses, and I dress up. We want to show them you can still be cool and dress up.”

“We decided as a group about how we should look and how we should act. We either dress up really nicely, or wear a bow so people know that they’re a belle. We also have Southern Belle shirts. They have their choice of what they want to wear.”

Each meeting has a guest speaker. They have included Independence mayor Eileen Weir, Independence School District director of public relations Jana Corrie and UMKC women’s basketball coach Jacie Hoyt, who visited with the belles at the beginning of the school year.

“They came in to share their story and empower the girls,” Dudek said. “(Hoyt) talked to them about their inner voice and being confident. She wanted to let them know that they can do anything.”

The Southern Belles work on spreading kindness throughout the school. Last year, they worked with the Southern Gentleman to create posters, hung around the building, focused on offering words of encouragement.

This week, the Southern Belles have been meeting with their “mini-belles,” students in third grade or younger, and have been mentoring them and reading to them, while giving them encouragement.

“We asked the kindergarten through third-grade teachers to give us names of girls that they thought might need some extra help or needed encouragement or if they just need another friend,” Dudek said. “It was for students who needed a positive influence with them.”

“On Thursday, they will read to their mini-belles, and on Friday, they will have lunch with them and get to know them better.”

The mini-belles have already expressed interest in becoming a belle.

“One of the third graders asked me, ‘When can I be a belle?’ And I told them they could be one next year. Then she said, ‘I can’t wait. I am so excited!’” Dudek said. “I am excited about this week because it opens up the little kids’ eyes about what a belle is.”

One student, fourth-grader Maya Khoshnevis, knows what being a belle is and she’s enjoyed it.

“My favorite thing is we get to share our ideas and we get to some fun activities here,” she said. “What made me join was how to be a lady and how to be kind to other kids around here.”

Fifth-grader LeAhna Jones shared similar sentiments.

“We learn to be brilliant ladies and learn how to act right,” Jones said. “I saw the Southern Belles were doing some new and cool stuff and learning.”