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

But Nydresha isn’t sure how long she wants to stick with the sport. Although cheerleading has been her life’s most successful pursuit so far, she is too curious about the world to commit for the long term. “I don’t want to do cheerleading for the rest of my life,” she said in July after a recreational game of volleyball at Quitman’s summer school. “I think I might like volleyball.”

Nydresha was recommended for summer school after ending the year with D’s in English and science. She said her focus in class suffered in sixth grade because of a bullying situation, the bully being a boy who had an unreciprocated crush on her -- until she cursed him out.

A ‘Little Doll Baby’

Nydresha was born at 12:25 a.m. on February 19, 2002. At 7 pounds 15 ounces, she was an average-sized newborn, but she has been a “little doll baby” ever since, according to Lil’ Bit, whose real name is also Andrea and who goes by Drea with family and friends.

Drea, 43, said she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was four and a half months along. Her twin brother’s name is Andre, or Dre, and so her daughter would be Nydresha, Dresha for short.

Drea once attended Quitman herself, and she dropped out of nearby Central High School in 12th grade. Until Nydresha was born, she said, she was “working, hanging out, enjoying myself.” Through the years she has worked as a barmaid, an airport maintenance worker, and a deli cashier. She’s packed boxes in a warehouse and taken care of horses and goats at the Turtle Back Zoo, Nydresha’s favorite of her mom’s jobs.

Now a school bus aide to disabled children, Drea leaves for work early during the academic year, Nydresha said, and calls to make sure Nydresha is awake at 6:30 a.m. An uncle who lives downstairs checks in on the girl as she’s getting ready. At 7:24 a.m. this past year, Nydresha would catch the No. 5 public bus to Quitman, arriving approximately 10 minutes later. At the end of the day, her mom would be there to watch her at cheerleading practice, and they would take the bus home together.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Nydresha with her sixth-grade science teacher, Henie Parillon. Science is one of her most difficult subjects.

Other than that, Drea said she doesn't know how else she would be involved at Quitman, given that she works during school hours. And she thinks cheerleading provides ample extracurricular activity. “I gotta let my baby breathe,” she said. In addition to cheering for Quitman, Nydresha participates on a citywide team called the Brick City Lions that begins its annual season in July and last winter afforded her the opportunity to travel to a national cheerleading tournament at Disney World in Florida. (The team placed sixth in the age-based “Midgets” division.)

‘She Could Go Anywhere’

Nydresha’s math teacher, Edwina Mitchell, demanded that her parents send her to after-school math tutoring when Nydresha missed more than a week of school for the Florida trip. She did not do her work while away and was failing math upon her return. Mitchell said she initially had trouble reaching Nydresha’s parents, but eventually they came around.

“I felt like Nydresha didn't take school seriously because the adults around her didn’t take school seriously,” said Mitchell, who also needs foot surgery but has been delaying it, not wanting to miss time with her students.

The teacher said that if Nydresha got the kind of encouragement in academics as she does in cheerleading, “she could go anywhere.” She wishes there were more academically inclined extracurricular activities in the neighborhood. She once coached debate at another school and could see Nydresha being a natural at it, if she had the chance. At the same time, she said, cheerleading and other sports teams can provide students with a vital sense of belonging. “It models the family unit,” she said.

Drea, who wears long braids beneath a headscarf, said she did support her daughter going to tutoring and catching up in math. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done,” she said. She is satisfied with the opportunities provided to Nydresha at Quitman, and she hopes her daughter’s experience there will lead to a bright future. “I hope she get out of school, find a good job,” she said. “Hoping she follow the right track and don’t fall off, that’s all I’m praying for.”

Nydresha’s dad, Darin, said he would like her to go to college, ideally as a cheerleader. For that to happen, he said, he needs to “stay on her to do her best . . . to keep her in her books.”

“If you don’t stay on her, she gets kind of lazy,” said Darin, 48, a baggage crew chief for American Airlines.

Someone else rooting for Nydresha is Wydeyah Hay, a 22-year-old Virginia State University student who comes home to Newark each May and volunteers to help the Quitman cheerleaders prepare for their annual tournament. (She is a childhood friend of the daughter of one of the Quitman coaches.) Hay also coaches the Brick City Lions. Working with Nydresha on that team, Hay saw what she was capable of. Back at Quitman, she tapped her to take on more stunts, more responsibility. That increased further when three girls who were among Quitman’s top performers were kicked off the school team for getting into a fight.

Nydresha was ready to step up.

Bracing for Competition

In academics, in athletics, in life, competition motivates. Standardized tests aren’t competition per se, but everyone always looks to see how schools compare. And while Principal Glover wants student learning, not test scores, to drive what happens in his classrooms, he also hates being labeled a loser. Last year Quitman scored in the bottom 2 percent of schools in New Jersey on the state’s standardized exams. This year’s results are expected back in August. Internal assessments project that the school will make strong gains in reading and more modest growth in math.

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