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

The cheerleaders had been at Quitman late the night before getting their hair done by Sarah’s mom and one of the coaches. All but Nydresha had braided ponytails hanging down their backs. Her hair was tucked in a tight bun so it wouldn’t be in the way during the stunts.

At 7 a.m., less than 12 hours after they had gone home, they were back to catch a bus to the tournament site, where they ate breakfast and did a trial run. Nydresha led the team in prayer that morning. In addition to asking God for victory, she said, she asked for all the girls to be kept safe, and for them not to fall on their hair.

The teams sat in bleachers across from the audience in alphabetical order by school, which made Quitman 14th. The girls waited through three categories of cheers in the lower division, whose teams are made up entirely of elementary-school students, and through the A- to P-named schools in the upper division, in which teams have girls of elementary- and middle-school age.

Despite the modern building, the air conditioning was no match for this crowd, particularly up in the high rows of bleachers where they sat. And while about half the teams wore short-sleeve uniforms, the Quitman girls had royal blue and white dresses with mock turtlenecks and long sleeves. One year, the judges deducted points because they weren’t in proper attire, and although other teams risked that happening to be more comfortable, they would not take the chance.

As the hours wore on, Nydresha’s mother brought her cookies and Gatorade from the concession stand.

Finally, it was time. At 3:54 p.m., nearly 11 hours after Nydresha woke up to shower, they were on.

Standing in line preparing to run out, she was shaking badly. “Focus,” she told herself. “You can do it.”

The Quitman team had one of the largest fan sections in the crowd, just behind the panel of 10 judges. In addition to friends and relatives, staff members who came to show their support included Quitman’s testing coordinator and Nydresha’s English teacher, whose granddaughter is also on the cheerleading team. They stood up, shrieked and cried, “Let’s go, ladies!” Nydresha beamed.

And then there she was, up in the air. High school cheerleaders stood ready as spotters should she go flying out of control. First came the basket toss, then cartwheels and backflips across the floor, then the spin, the pendulum, the liberty, the quarter-up, another basket toss and, at last, the yo-yo. She tucked her chin, somersaulted midair and landed on her feet. She had nailed them all.

Video: RLS Media

The team would have to wait another two hours and 20 minutes for the results, during which time Sarah competed in the upper-division’s individual Miss Yell category, trying to defend her title.

“I finally got it over with, and I think I’m finally over my fears,” Nydresha said in the hall outside the gym with Sarah as they waited. Win or lose, “I’ll just take it,” she said. On second thought, she added, “If we don’t place, then I’ll kind of feel bad because of all the hard work.”

“But we’re going to place,” Sarah said, audibly tired.

Sarah ended up coming in second for Miss Yell. A Quitman fourth grader took fourth place in the lower-division Miss Jump contest and second place in the lower-division Miss Yell. A Quitman sixth grader tied with a girl from Wilson Avenue School for second place in the upper-division Miss Jump.

The upper-division team results were the last ones announced, at 6:15 p.m. It was the moment everyone was waiting for -- those who were still waiting, at least. About half the crowd had already left, including Nydresha’s dad, who had to pick up another of his daughters but would watch the announcement later on television. Third place went to Camden Street School. When Alexander Street -- Quitman’s main rival -- got second, everyone knew who was first. The Quitman cheerleaders and their supporters were already hugging, jumping and screaming when they were called as winners.

“Girls, stop crying,” the tournament’s mistress of ceremonies said as the 14 of them in blue and white and their coaches ran down from the bleachers and gathered for the cameras. A few days later, each of them would receive a trophy at an awards banquet, but for now, for the photos, there was only one. It went to Nydresha, positioned front and center.

In the weeks that followed, she would get distracted and fail to complete her final English project and have her hopes dashed of taking a summer vacation with her mom to see relatives in Georgia, a prospect she held onto after it became clear that they were not moving to Hawaii or anywhere else. (“I could fit in people’s luggage,” she offered.) She would toy with the ideas of spending more days of the week with her dad and of transferring to a charter school, and ultimately nothing would change and she would settle into the routine of summer school and cheerleading practice, with the hopes of another trip to Florida come winter.

But for now, if just for a moment, the spotlight was hers. And wherever life takes her, she will remember how it feels to work hard and come out on top.

This is the 10th in an ongoing series of articles documenting the successes and setbacks at Newark's Quitman Street Renew School. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sara Neufeld, a contributing editor for The Hechinger Report, has been writing about public education since 2000. She has been following Quitman since the beginning of Newark's renew school initiative two years ago for the award-winning "A Promise to Renew" series with NJ Spotlight.

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