RED HOOK — Only the strong survive.
That’s how some of South Brooklyn Community High School’s cheerleaders describe their first official squad that started last fall.
The team started in 2012 at the transfer school — which serves students ages 16 and 20 years old who have dropped out of their previous high schools or were kicked out because of excessive truancy. After staff decided to create a first-ever cheerleading team to complement the new boys' basketball team, more than a dozen girls signed up.
But the cheerleading team quickly whittled down to three or four, due to the unique pressures the school's student body faces, students and staff said.
Unlike “traditional” high schools, SBCHS accepts students throughout the year, which creates a fluctuating student population where consistent junior varsity and varsity teams are hard to maintain, students and staff said.
In addition, the pressures of life outside classes put a strain on students at the school, many of whom cope with unstable homes, part-time jobs and raising children, staff said.
“You’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices,” said Dominique Manigo, 18, one of SBCHS’s current cheerleaders. “It can be difficult at times.”
The transfer school, which was founded in 2002 and serves young people in Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Wyckoff, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and Sunset Park, offers counseling and accelerated academic courses that are tailored to each student’s needs.
Still, this year's team has stabilized, thanks in large part to new coach Shannon Hummel, founder of Cora Dance, a neighborhood dance school and studio.
Hummel, who was a cheerleader in her Virginia high school and went on to a career in dance, came armed with a toughness of her own: laying down the law with a contract of rules that prospective cheerleaders have to sign before joining the team.
Two missed practices per term and you’re off the squad. Arrive late more than three times and it counts as a missed practice. Skipping a game counts as a missed practice.
“We were very clear that you get two absences per term,” said Hummel. “Now we’ve got a group of people who get it.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, four of the seven cheerleaders who now form the squad — Manigo, Beverly Johnson, 19, Melisha Gonzalez, 17 and Shakira Robertson, 17 — showed up for practice at the Conover Street school’s gym.
“It’s like a bad girls' club,” said Manigo, who is graduating this year.
“Only the tough survive,” Johnson added.
Faculty credited the team for helping create experiences that encourage discipline and dedication.
“For them, to make any commitment that they follow through on… for them, that is resiliency, that is toughness,” said Kelley Wolcott, an English teacher at SBCHS and the squad’s teacher advisor.
But when it came to cheerleading and basketball, the brand new squad needed to start from scratch.
Solomon Goodwin, a Cora dance instructor, teaches a style of choreography that combines hip-hop with new and popular moves, like “twerking,” to helps strengthen and prepare the cheerleaders for more rigorous stunts, he said.
“I feel like my dancing and everything is getting them in shape,” said Goodwin. “My work helps open their mind to want to do things that they know they’re capable of.”
Hummel focuses on chants, partner stunts and conventional cheerleading routines. But her work is coupled with teaching the value of good sportsmanship. She even incorporates the rules of basketball to help the students cheer appropriately, she explained, letting them know it's OK to make some noise when the opposing team is at the foul line — but stay quiet when your own team is shooting.
“People think that cheerleading is a bunch of jumping around,” said Hummel.
She said on the contrary, cheerleading squads require strength, agility, discipline, teamwork and grace while performing in front of a crowd.
“There’s something exciting about performing but there’s also something exciting about being a part of a group,” Hummel said.
The school's staff works in partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a social service and youth development organization.
But without school experiences beyond the scope of academics, it’s hard to encourage students who have struggled in traditional schools to commit to graduating high school, said Wolcott.
The school said the cheerleading squad is one tool in its arsenal to engage students who struggled with academics in their previous school.
At the Thursday session, the four young women moved in unison, dancing to the beat of the music, focusing as if each step were bringing them closer to perfection.
“They have more power than they know,” said Hummel. “They’re starting to feel like they’re strong enough to do it.”