RIDGEVILLE -- The first thing you notice about Clay Hill Middle School is the jazz.

It plays over the intercom as you walk into the building and wafts through the halls as though the entire school is some kind of NPR program.

What's more intriguing is the fact that you can actually hear the music.

That's because at Clay Hill, the kids are quiet, polite and reserved with a maturity that belies their age. They don't wear uniforms, but their shirts are neatly tucked in, and their pants certainly aren't sagging.

This is all a great source of pride to Michael Williams, the assistant principal at Clay Hill Middle. It is, he says, the work of the school's new character education program, which they call PRIDE -- an acronym that means Prepare to win; Respect yourself and others; Implement the Golden Rule; Display Self-Control; and Excel in efforts.

That's a mouthful, to be sure, but the program has a lot of merit. At Clay Hill Middle School, grades are on the rise, discipline problems are down, and the kids are learning a lot about etiquette.

And, in this day and age, we could certainly use more mannerly folks.

A little perspective

Williams' office is stocked with a lot of things you don't see in the average middle school -- a rack of neckties, a bag of zip ties, those jazz CDs.

The neckties are used for the school's regular "guys in ties" events. The teachers, along with Williams and Principal Kenneth Pinkney, teach the boys a bit about dressing professionally (there are also regular "girls in pearls" events).

"We're trying to mentor these young people," Williams says. "We're trying to expose them to a variety of things, to give them a unique perspective."

Such things are important out here, Williams says. Ridgeville is a small, quaint place -- think the town in "Doc Hollywood," just not quite so congested. In a place where a trip to Charleston -- or even Summerville -- is an event, it's easy to feel isolated.

Williams is trying to bring good influences to this town, and keep out the bad. The zip ties, for instance, are used to cinch up the pants of anybody who doesn't wear a belt to school.

No pants on the ground here.

Staying out of trouble

Williams, who has spent much of his career in elementary schools, brings a different perspective to middle school.

There is a tendency these days for kids to grow up too fast, to treat middle school like a mini-high school. Williams, a military veteran, at first thought he should hand out discipline like a drill sergeant. He quickly found that personal relationships work better, especially with kids this age. "They are really young kids at heart," he says.

So what is the simple motivation here? At the end of every month, kids who stay out of trouble and the principal's office, and stick to the rules of the PRIDE program, are invited to an hour-and-a-half party at the end of the school day. Sometimes they play games, listen to music or get a rare soda.

So far, in the program's first year, about 85 to 90 percent of the students make it to each party -- which is pretty amazing.

But then, these are pretty good kids.