BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Its front door locked against the evils of the inner city, Dupuy Elementary School doesn't look like an oasis of etiquette.
But inside, pupils are drilled on the courteous way to eat and to answer the phone. A demure "Yes, ma'am," they learn, is the only proper response to a lady.
"If I just reached under Tifinie's desk and took her books, would that be showing her respect?" etiquette instructor Adrian Pearson asks a fifth-grade class.
"No, ma'am," the youngsters respond.
"Should you stare at other people?" she asks.
The next day's lesson: "Charming is as charming does."
Dupuy (rhymes with "soupy") is home to an experimental program aimed at restoring common courtesy to Birmingham's schools, which are struggling with problems such as drugs, violence and dropouts.
The theory is that pupils will do better academically if they learn to respect others, and, in turn, themselves.
"This is about early intervention, getting rid of those bad habits before they are established," Principal Samuetta Drew said. "You can't curse everybody out or shoot everybody, although those seem popular now."
Ten-year-old Tifinie Hawkins says she learned proper posture in etiquette class. And, she says, she has seen a change in her schoolmates.
"They treat people with more respect than they did before," Tifinie said.
Pearson works for Etiquette Training Services Inc., which has a $10,530 contract to teach Dupuy's 208 pupils to mind their manners.
Kindergartners receive seven hours of "manner classes" during the year, while those in grades 1 through 5 get 10 hours. The company also puts on a workshop for parents.
Once the program is over, the young ladies and gentlemen will be tested to see how much they remember.
The principal isn't expecting miracles. She just saw a need for more civility at the school when she arrived last year and launched the program with the superintendent's blessing and a grant from his discretionary account.
Dupuy is in a blighted neighborhood. Steel gates cover the office windows to keep burglars out, and visitors must press a buzzer to get in.
Inside, pupils talk quietly in the lunchroom, where a bulletin board illustrates a formal place setting. A special "dress-up" day is planned where they will dine as if in a fine restaurant.
The program already has been expanded to Banks Middle School, where 300 youngsters will learn how to mind their Ps and Qs.
"If these kids learn how to interact with each other, learn how to talk and eat properly, they will have better self-esteem," Supt. Cleveland Hammonds said. "And it kind of adds a touch of class."