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Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Everyone Gets To Play at Ind. Middle School

Everyone Gets To Play at Ind. Middle School

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Plainfield Community Middle School has a policy of "widespread participation." But there are limits: Not every swimmer, for example, attends every meet.

The voices are loud and perfectly synchronized: "Hey--hey you! Get out of our way! Because today is the day that we will put you away!"

It's a recent Tuesday afternoon, and the cheerleaders of Plainfield Community Middle School, just outside Indianapolis, are practicing their routines in the school's cafeteria. There are tall girls, short girls, plump girls, skinny girls. Some have legs like springs and practically jump to the ceiling. Others barely get off the ground. The range of abilities is striking. Most remarkable, however, is the sheer number of cheerleaders in the room: about 50. And that, it turns out, is only half the team.

Cheerleading has always had a reputation for being one of the most exclusive of all extracurricular activities. At Plainfield, though, any girl who has ever dreamed of being a cheerleader can join the squad. All she has to do is sign up at the beginning of the school year and show up for practice. It's that simple.

Indeed, at this school, nearly every extracurricular activity--sports, band, choir, even the student council--is open to any student. There are no tryouts, no auditions, and, consequently, no rejections.

Principal Jerry Goldsberry says middle school should be a time for students to explore any activity they want; 107 cheerleaders agree.

Students are encouraged to take part in something--anything--and they turn out in droves. Well over half the school's 900 6th through 8th graders are involved in some sort of extracurricular activity. It's called "widespread participation," and Plainfield Community Middle School is famous for the policy.

"We're like the Statue of Liberty," jokes John Utterback, the coach of the school's 56-member wrestling squad. "You know, 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddling masses.' We take everybody."

Sixth grade teacher Stacy Hughes, a co-sponsor of the 107-member cheerleading squad, says: "I think it's a great policy. Granted, some girls aren't as talented as others, but they're having a good time out there. I think it's good for them, especially at this age, when girls are so self-conscious about everything. It's good for their self-esteem."

'Positive Side of Life'

But is it realistic? Doesn't a no-cut policy simply delay the inevitable sorting process that goes on all the time in the real world?

"When people say that it's not the 'real world,' " responds Jerry Goldsberry, Plainfield's tireless principal, "I say, 'Oh, yes it is. What other world is there?' I'd like to think that this program duplicates life, but it's the positive side of life." Besides, he adds, such a policy is "age appropriate" for middle school students. "What we're trying to do," he says, "is to help these kids make the transition from elementary to high school." Middle school, he believes, should be a time for students to explore new things, to be "generalists." It is not, he insists, a time to face the ruthlessness of tryouts and auditions.

Most educators accept the idea that children who feel good about themselves do better academically. But not everyone embraces the concept, and programs that attempt to boost students' self-esteem have increasingly come under fire in recent years. Critics argue that the focus on self-esteem has become an end in itself, not a means to--or a result of--academic success. It is, they say, a "feel good" concept that denies students the ability to assess their efforts and accomplishments realistically.

If the emphasis on self-esteem is under fire in the education world, Mr. Goldsberry seems not to have heard the news. He acknowledges that Plainfield's widespread-participation policy was implemented in part to improve his students' self-image, though he's hardly an ideologue on the matter.

"We're like the Statue of Liberty," says John Utterback, the coach of Plainfield's 56-student wrestling team. "We take everybody."

"We don't talk about it that much," says the 48-year-old principal, an expansive man with a crew cut, dark eyebrows, and a neatly trimmed mustache. "But you can get more accomplished with kids if they want to be here than if they don't. And self-esteem is part of that."

Ten years ago, district administrators in Plainfield--a pleasant suburb of about 10,000 not far from Indianapolis International Airport--decided it was time to create a brand-new middle school. The district's combined junior-senior high school, which served students in grades 7 through 12, was crowded, and many felt that it wasn't appropriate to have 7th and 8th graders in the same building with older students. So Mr. Goldsberry, then an assistant principal at the high school, was asked to head up the new middle school, which would serve 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

J. Howard Johnston, a leading expert on middle schools, was brought in as a consultant. One of his recommendations was that Plainfield's students be engaged in as many extracurricular activities as possible.

Surprising Response

The idea struck a chord among the teachers, Mr. Goldsberry says, and they quickly moved to make it school policy--even though no one was quite sure how it would work in practice.

Shortly after the school opened its doors in the fall of 1990, 76 girls signed up to be cheerleaders. "We just about fainted," Mr. Goldsberry says.

It didn't take long for the principal and his staff to realize that it would be impractical for all the girls to attend sports events at the same time, so they divided the cheerleaders into squads and assigned them to various sports throughout the school year. But everyone still got a chance to participate.

Guidance counselor Bruce Baker, who doubles as the school's cross-country coach, remembers 85 students signing up to be on the team that first year. "That was a shock," he says. "I didn't know whether I could do it. But I came up with a system that works for me."

Mr. Baker and his Wildcat runners have to take two buses every time they travel to away meets. Students on the other teams were wide-eyed with astonishment at first. "They were overwhelmed," Mr. Baker says, laughing. "But we've been doing this for so long, they just expect it now. They say, 'Here comes Baker and his thundering herd.' "

Initially, Mr. Goldsberry wanted the no-cut policy to apply to all sports, but it proved unworkable for two: basketball and volleyball. That first year, the principal recalls, 100 7th graders signed up to play basketball, Indiana's most popular sport. Accommodating all the students would have meant dividing them into 20 five-member teams, which would rotate during games. "But we'd be practicing until 2 in the morning, and if we played another team and got beat 127 to 6, I don't know how beneficial that would be." So they resorted to a selection process. "We have 20 players on the team--most schools have 10 or 12--and we divide them into an 'A' squad and a 'B' squad. Plus, there's an intramural program. That's the best we could do."

Trophy Cases

The school's policy of inclusion also applies to the music program. There are three bands and three choirs--one for each grade--to accommodate the number of students who participate: 350 in the band program, 325 in the choir. "We don't cut anybody," choir teacher Ginger Davis says proudly, "and we don't have a problem with that. We're talking a third of the school in the choir."

Plainfield's bands and choirs have won numerous awards, proving that so many students of varying abilities can make good music. The sports teams have excelled, as well. "Take a look at the trophy case," says Jeff Leath, the coach of the 65-member girls' swim team. "We've won a lot of championships, especially in swimming. In four years, we have not lost a meet." In fact, the school has two trophy cases, located in a corridor near the pool, and they are brimming with prizes.

"I think widespread participation brings the whole level of quality up," Mr. Leath adds. "It brings the kids that are average to a higher level."

But is the policy fair to really good athletes, given that they might go on to play in high school?

It's something that everyone at Plainfield seems to have grappled with. At cross-country practices, Mr. Baker offers his athletes the choice of two workouts, short or long. After they've attended several meets, he'll pick out some of the top runners and "obligate" them to do the more difficult workout. "You can imagine the disparity in the abilities among the kids," he says. "I've got some who are basically nonathletes." But he always has some good ones, too, and he wonders if they would be better if he could give them more individual attention.

On the cheerleading squad, coaches try to address that issue by dividing up the girls as much as possible.

"Right now, some of my 8th grade girls are really concerned about making the freshman squad" in high school, Addie Smiley, a 23-year-old special education teacher who co-sponsors the team, says. "So I try to give them some programs to work on, on their own."

Miranda Sutton, a 14-year-old with dark, shoulder-length hair and brown eyes, has been cheerleading since 3rd grade. "I love it," she says. But she sometimes gets frustrated at the lower interest level of some of her peers. "A lot of girls don't take it seriously. Some are just doing it because their friends are doing it, and they look goofy, and they make the whole squad look bad."

Miranda wonders if perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing if Plainfield had tryouts for the 8th grade girls to better prepare them for the competitiveness of the high school squad.

But if that were the case, girls like Katie Curtis might get shut out. "I've always wanted to be a cheerleader," the 14-year-old says, "but I was never committed to it until this year." During practice, Katie struggles to do a toe touch, a standard but difficult jump for cheerleaders. She, too, plans to try out for the freshman squad, despite the tough competition.

"Some of these girls have been cheerleading since they were little," she says, "and they've also been in gymnastics. So that's hard to go up against."

Whatever happens, it seems certain that Katie will long cherish her days as a Wildcat cheerleader. "Here," she says, "they don't cut anybody, so I'm really lucky."

Vol. 18, Issue 37, Pages 6-7

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