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After tough year, Kennedy High squad has plenty to cheer about

on October 8, 2010

Like much of Richmond, Kennedy High School’s cheerleaders have been waiting all year for this night. The varsity football team’s season opener against El Cerrito has drawn a sizeable crowd, mostly Kennedy Eagles fans. Under DeAnza High School’s bright stadium lights, the cheerleaders seize an opportunity to energize the stands. Team members take their positions on the sidelines. Captain Alan Navarro, 17, cues the squad.

“Pump, pump, pump it up! Pump that Eagle spirit up!”

Junior Abigail Ramirez, right, injured her ankle before the season began, but still attends all games and practice sessions. (Photo by Julia Chan)

For most of the 17 Kennedy cheerleaders on the squad, this isn’t just their first game of the season; it’s their first time cheering. The 14 girls and three boys are here because the coaches decided to accept more students partly to help keep kids off the streets and out of trouble.

“They’re more susceptible to get hit by a car, to get in fights, to get into trouble, to get into whatever else they’re doing that they’re not supposed to be doing,” says coach Aishah Mandeel, a UC Berkeley senior and veteran of the national competitive high school cheerleading circuit. “But if they’re here, or if they know that in order to do cheer they have to stay out of trouble, they’re more inclined to do good things and come to practice instead of Lord knows what else.”

The cheerleading squad remains a bright spot at what once what once an athletic and academic powerhouse. From the late 1960s through the mid-80s, Kennedy High routinely sent students to Ivy League colleges. More recently, the school has struggled: Two years ago, just 19 percent of its students met state proficiency standards for English and only 5 percent did for math, according to the California Department of Education’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program.

In fact, the school has been on the verge of closing several times over the past few years. Thanks to the Richmond city council, the Eagles have funding to stay put for at least one more school year.

The cheerleading squad has also seen its share of struggles. Four members quit the squad last year, leaving only five members on the team. On top of that, many of the squad’s opportunities to perform vanished when the varsity football team’s season was cut short due to a lack of eligible players. For much of last fall, the cheerleaders didn’t have a team to cheer for.

Despite the adversity, the Eagles cheerleaders have persevered. The squad won a national award at the JAMZ 2010 Adrenaline competition last winter, finishing second in their category.

"We always want to get as many kids involved as we can," Coach Mandeel says. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

One of the girls on last year’s squad, junior Tanisha “Nina” Hutson, has returned for another season. The 16-year-old’s family moved to Concord last spring, but cheering at Kennedy meant so much to Hutson that she decided to stay enrolled. Though she has to commute an hour and a half every day, Hutson doesn’t mind the long BART ride as long as she gets to put on her uniform and perform.

“I still wanted to come here and cheer because it’s a very good cheerleading squad,” Hutson says, taking a quick break during halftime at the Kennedy-Richmond game in late September. “Cheering helps me stay out of trouble because you have to keep your grades up to cheer and you want to be able to go to school to cheer at the games.”

Junior Perla Rodriguez, 17, agrees that the sport is a good incentive to do well in school.

“I want to be smart. Not just people be like, ‘Oh, she’s a cheerleader. She’s not smart,’” she says, looking up at the halftime clock, which is just about to expire. “So I just motivate myself.”

Two days a week, the squad heads to study hall. Although the athletic department requires a minimum grade point average of 2.0 to remain eligible, Mandeel’s cheerleaders must maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher.

“I’d prefer a 3.0 because I want all of them eventually to be able to go to college,” she says. “I hope they all at least go to a junior college—hopefully a four-year college.”

When the squad isn’t in study hall, its members are practicing—or supposed to be. On a warm Wednesday afternoon, much of the squad is waiting outside room 703, the dance room. The coaches are scheduled to lead cheer practice at this very minute, but the Polynesian Club is taking its time to leave.

Once inside, the squad knows the drill: change in the locker room, then warm up. While most of the team is stretching their hamstrings on the blond hardwood floor, a few members arrive late. Coach Mandeel is not pleased.

“Alan, you need to start stretching!” she yells. “You guys are late. Stretch!”

The cheerleaders make "stunting" look easy, but the coach says it requires lots of strength. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

At the big game against El Cerrito, all the practicing pays off. As the clock winds down, the cheerleaders perk up.

“Beat…those…Gau-chos! Let’s…go…Ea-gles!”

With less than a minute remaining and the Eagles down by two points, the squad turns to face the field. The Kennedy fans are on their feet, and so are the cheerleaders. It seems like everyone is cheering now.  A Kennedy player bolts down the field.  He’s gone, deep into the end-zone—and so is the squad, off to celebrate a big victory and a new year at Kennedy High.

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