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Learning to Fly -- and Fall -- at Newark's Quitman Street Renew School

Nydresha was among the 100 students targeted for after-school tutoring in the past year because their 2013 performance suggested that with the right intervention, they could get up to grade level and pass this time around. But Nydresha’s focus was on cheerleading practice. The state exams don’t carry personal consequences for students, but the Newark Public Schools’ annual elementary cheerleading tournament does.

Nydresha and Sarah have been on the Quitman cheerleading team since third grade. Each year, they and their teammates begin practice in October and perform during the boys’ and girls’ basketball season. Then in early May, they stop attending games and train intensely for the annual citywide competition, not unlike the last-minute test-prep seen at many underperforming schools nationally. Hay joins the two cheerleading coaches each spring when she gets home from college. Her job is to choreograph a routine to win.

“You have squads that practice from September to May, and I only have four weeks,” said Hay, who became a cheerleading coach at age 16 after her own coach on a citywide team was murdered, along with three of her teammates. “I’ve gotta make it happen within those four weeks.”

Last year, the Quitman girls won second place in the upper-division cheer and dance category. The school also scored four individual first-place awards, one of them for Sarah, who won the title Miss Yell.

This year, more teams would be participating, and Quitman was bracing for stiff competition from Alexander Street School, which is being converted to a charter school this summer because of failing academic performance. Hay decided to include more and harder stunts than in years past. To pull them off, she would rely on Nydresha, the smallest of the middle-school girls on the team. And she would require everyone to practice five days a week for two hours or more, a commitment that only 14 girls were able to keep, down from about 35 who started the season. The school also mandates that cheerleaders keep a minimum 2.0 GPA and good behavior. Nydresha at one point contemplated quitting to join the technology club, which produces the yearbook, but the technology teacher wouldn’t allow it. She told her she had to finish what she started.

Nydresha’s seven stunts were spread throughout a tournament routine that included a 40-second performance to a music mix Hay made, a 50-second cheer and then another minute performing to the music, which included bits by Whitney Houston, Icona Pop, Rhianna, and Beyoncé.

The cheer, written by Hay, went like this:

Guess who’s back/

And better than before?/

Quitman Street Peacocks/

Here to rock this floor/

Simply the greatest/

The best you can define/

Champions, you know it/

This year’s our time/

Talented, elite/

Number one by far/

Watch us as/

We reach the stars/

Our fame continues/

It’s all in the name/

Quitman Street Peacocks/

Will put them to shame/

So, yeah, that’s right/

This is our year/

Twenty-fourteen/

The team/

To/

Fear

One Thursday in late May, at the 11th-to-last practice before the tournament, the pressure was palpable. Over and over, Hay made the girls repeat their routine until Nydresha, in turquoise shorts, could perfect the count to swing her leg around in a stunt called the pendulum. It involved doing a single-legged backbend while hoisted in the air and then whipping the lifted leg from behind her body to the front. She kept coming around on five-six and needed to wait for seven-eight.

“You know if you bend your leg, you’re going straight to the floor,” Hay said.

Then practicing the yo-yo, Nydresha fell, and in pain and frustration, cursed at another girl for dropping her.

Her mother, watching in the Quitman basement next to Sarah’s mom, giggled. “I should’ve videotaped that,” she said. She took out her phone to be ready next time.

During a break, Nydresha found herself torn between her coaches, who told the girls not to eat anything until practice was over so they wouldn’t get sick, and her mother, who brought chicken wings and instructed Nydresha to eat them. She did, even though she said the meat tasted funny.

“My mom likes to get me in trouble,” Nydresha told me meekly, also apologizing for her cursing.

“I don’t care,” Drea replied. “You gotta eat . . . It ain’t gonna kill you.” To which she added, within earshot of the coaches: “I’m trying to get her fat. She’s small like her mother.” She said later that she would have pulled Nydresha out of practice if the coaches pressed the issue further. “Don’t play around with my baby,” she said. “This is not your baby. This is mine. I feed my baby.”

As the practice wore on, Hay was tough on all the girls. She told them they looked “brand new” that day, that “if you all want to act like you don’t know what you’re doing, I could leave.”

“Everybody gets hit,” she said. “Everybody falls. You have to get up. You have to keep going.”

Nydresha did keep going, and by the end of practice, she was getting through the routine without mistakes. Hay hugged her as they walked out.

Wherever Life Takes Her

As the sun beat down in Newark on the morning of Saturday, June 7, hundreds of people congregated outside the locked doors of the Weequahic High School gymnasium, a gleaming three-year-old facility tucked behind a 1930s-era school building. Waiting to get inside were parents, relatives, teachers, and other school staff, all there to support the 19 teams from all over Newark. When the doors finally opened at 12:15 p.m., it took more than an hour for everyone to pass through a metal detector and take a seat in the bleachers.

Nydresha’s mother sat on the floor in front of the first row, at the feet of Nydresha’s father, who was there with her 2-year-old half-sister and her paternal uncle, who is Quitman’s head custodian. For Nydresha’s big day, her parents sat together like the family they once were. Nydresha adores her current stepmother and her “fairy godmother,” as she calls the mother of her two older half-siblings, but still sometimes wishes her parents were a couple again.

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