A CONTROLLED CHATTER came from the school cafeteria, where about 100 young men buzzed around a table. But their excitement wasn't about food.
The seventh- and eighth-grade youngsters, nattily attired in dress shirts and pants - some in suit jackets as well - sorted through rows of ties so they could pick out just the right one.
This was "Dress for Success Day" at Leeds Middle School in Mount Airy on a recent Friday.
That day, the students got free neckties and learned that, to find a job and earn success in life, they need to know how to dress to impress at a business luncheon.
Because Eric Ward and members of his Nu-Juice Foundation, a group of Philadelphia-area men, had come to Leeds to talk business with the students.
Ward, 54, and his son Shareef operate a tie company, the Eric Shareef Collection. But the two are offering more than dresswear: They're trying to bring messages of motivation and perseverance to some of the Philly schools that need it most.
Ward is also executive director of the "Keepin' It Real Tour," a blend of entertainment, quiz show and motivational speeches that Ward's Nu-Juice Foundation has been taking to public high schools in and around the city for about two years.
He's taping the tour, and hopes to bring it to cable television.
At a couple of schools, including Leeds, Ward has convened "town-hall meetings" to talk to the kids without the entertainment.
Meanwhile, Shareef, in his late 20s, has taken over a program to bring work or theater experiences to students at a few high schools.
Eric Ward says that he, Shareef and Nu-Juice are responding to a need.
He used to work as an assistant director of admissions at Lincoln University. When he went to city schools on recruitment visits, he said, he saw that too many inner-city students "didn't have the tools" to succeed in college - especially soft skills, such as how to present themselves and how to stick with their work.
About half would drop out of college after the first semester.
"They have the desire, but [many] don't have the basics," Ward said. "You can have the desire to be a carpenter, but if you don't have a hammer, how can you build a house?"
So Ward decided to package life lessons in entertainment. On the Keepin' It Real Tour, he and other invited speakers talk to the youths between talent acts, urging the students to stay in school, work hard at their studies and make something of their lives.
"The schools need help," Ward said. "People expect teachers to be parents and community leaders. They're supposed to be educators, but they're forced to deal with all these social problems."
Last year, after his own alma mater, West Philadelphia High, was in the news when a teacher got a broken jaw and several locker fires were set, Ward decided he had to act.
He got on the phone to his cousin, Philly music legend Kenny Gamble, and politician John White Jr. - both West Philly High grads - and asked them to be part of an all-male "town hall meeting" at the school.
He brought successful West alums together with students to talk about being responsible, keeping their communities safe and respecting women.
Just two days before the Leeds "Dress for Success Day," Ward was back at West Philly High for a Career Day organized by the school's revamped alumni association. Among the alumni present were novelist Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan and Daily News columnist Elmer Smith.
"It meant something to me and my kids that they came," West Principal Saliyah Cruz said.
"They weren't just people who grew up in the city, but these were people who actually graduated from this school who came to say: 'This is what we've accomplished, and there's no reason why you can't do these things too.' "
A lot of people make promises to help Philadelphia students, said Leeds Principal Stephanie Mitchell.
And at first, Mitchell admitted being a bit cautious when state Sen. LeAnna M. Washington suggested she bring Ward and his "town-hall" meeting to the school, where students had fought last year.
But she allowed it. And Mitchell said she caught a bit of the town meeting in October.
It was a meeting similar to the one at West Philly High. Ward and his crew talked to the Leeds students about being gentlemen, solving problems peacefully and being respectful.
At that October meeting, Ward and Shareef handed out four or five ties.
But Ward said he could see the other young men were disappointed that they didn't get ties too.
That's when he promised the group he'd return to Leeds with a lunch and a tie for everyone.
When the men showed up a little more than a week ago with the lunches - provided by ShopRite - and hundreds of ties, Mitchell said she was impressed:
"They kept their word, and that's important."
Washington said she asked Ward to talk to the youngsters because "this is a group of men who are committed to making change. And we wanted [the students] to see they didn't have to act in negative ways."
"We just needed to redirect that negative energy," the senator said.
Mitchell said Leeds students came in with a changed attitude the morning of "Dress for Success Day." About 40 of them wore ties.
"They walked in so tall and proud of themselves," the principal said.
The young women took notice, too.
"When I came in, all the girls were like, 'D'Mitri, you looking good!' " said a smiling D'Mitri
Copeland, an eighth-grader.
Delshawn Compton, 14 - who came dressed in a suit - went up to some of the men after the discussion to shake their hands.
"I feel as though everybody should dress up once in a while," Compton said.
Getting middle-schoolers to dress up, or high-schoolers to stay in school, is tough work even for a self-made guy like Ward. But Kenny Gamble said last week that he believes in his cousin.
"Not only is he committed," Gamble said, "but he's capable."*