LINCOLN SQUARE — School spirit is back at Amundsen High School.
Vikings fans are heralding the return of the cheerleading and pom squads that have been restored under new principal Anna Pavichevich.
"It's a lot better than last year. So far, it's the best year for school spirit," said Christopher Santiago, 18, a senior on the basketball team.
"Anna was so passionate about cheerleading and poms," said Bridget Heidkamp, faculty adviser for cheerleading. "The girls know she's excited. She came to practice, and they were on cloud nine."
Cheerleading has been on-again, off-again at Amundsen, 5110 N. Damen Ave., and pompom dancing has been missing for at least 10 years due to lack of resources. Pent-up demand for the squads was apparent when 100 girls turned out for hastily arranged tryouts the first week of October.
"I always intended to have a dance team here," said Brooke Meadows, faculty adviser for the pompoms squad. "But I thought three years from now."
She quickly assembled a squad of 20 dancers out of 26 candidates, emphasizing spirit and attitude over skill.
"I want them to become positive, friendly and respectful of everyone in the building. No drama," said Meadows, a member of the school's counseling staff.
Her biggest challenge to date has been finding popular music with appropriate lyrics.
"I've become an expert in music editing," she said.
For her part, Heidkamp manages 25 cheerleaders, ranging from freshmen to seniors, all at the varsity level.
"I originally planned on doing eight to 15 [cheerleaders], but I just didn't have the heart to cut so many," said Heidkamp, a special-education instructor.
Both squads had mere weeks to prepare for the Vikings' homecoming game in October, scarcely enough time to learn routines, much less purchase uniforms. Heidkamp sprung for makeshift outfits for her squad, including the pompoms the dancers wave.
"It's like spirit fingers," said junior Chasity Westmoreland, 17. "It brings out the most in cheerleaders."
By the time of Amundsen's basketball home opener Tuesday — a win for the Vikings courtesy of a forfeit by opponent Prosser — the squads had become more polished, with months of constant practice under their belts, and their classmates were taking notice.
"That's the thing about cheerleading, when they see us in our uniform, that's how they get informed about games," said cheerleading captain Kensy Ochoa, a 17-year-old senior.
Ochoa, one of the few members of the squad with prior cheerleading experience, was tempted to organize a team herself for the 2011-12 school year.
"'Cause I have school spirit, and I love Amundsen," she said.
Extracurricular activities like cheerleading and pompom may seem superfluous in this era of high-stakes testing, particularly at a school such as Amundsen, which is on academic probation. But the squads are part of a strategy to increasing attendance.
"We're doing things to motivate kids to come to school and feel part of a community," Pavichevich said at a recent meeting of the school's Local School Council.
The gambit seems to be working.
For an evening open house in November, Meadows had so many members of her squad volunteer to man a pompoms information table, "She had to pick our names out of a hat," said junior Cassandra Garcia.
The girls will also be selling popcorn and offering manicures at Amundsen's Winter Community Carnival Dec. 19 to raise funds to pay for the team's uniforms (the girls need to cover $600 of the $1,200 tab).
"When you work for it, you appreciate it better," said senior Amila Bijedic.
The cheerleaders, whose uniforms cost $2,000 (only the skirts had arrived by basketball season), stuck around after the Prosser forfeit to help Heidkamp, the cheerleading adviser, assemble hundreds of Holiday Grams — messages from one student to another, with a candy cane attached — a fundraiser that pulled in $500.
"I feel like there's more pride being at Amundsen," said Heidkamp, who is an eight-year staff veteran.
Momentum is building at the school, targeted by Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) as the linchpin of a strategy to build a K-12 neighborhood school system. (Amundsen was remapped into the 40th Ward, but feeder elementary schools remain in the 47th.) A Friends of Amundsen group formed earlier this year, and turnout for the school's LSC election last spring was among the highest in the city.
"The school is just on a giant upswing. I think both cheerleading and poms are an example of that," said pompoms squad adviser Meadows. "It feels like a real school for the first time."