Mob Squad

By David Hill — April 01, 1999 16 min read
Programs to boost kids’ self-esteem are out of fashion. But don’t tell the 107 girls on the Plainfield Community Middle School cheerleading team. Or the 350 band members, the 100 cross-country runners, the 56 wrestlers, the ...

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 Tuesday afternoon in February, and the cheerleaders of Plain field Community Middle School, just outside of Indianapolis, are practicing their routines under bright fluorescent lights inside the school’s cafeteria. The girls, full of adolescent energy and enthusiasm, are dressed in gym shorts and T-shirts, some of which say, “It’s a cheerleading thing. You wouldn’t understand,” or “Wildcat Cheerleaders Rock the House.” There are tall girls, short girls, plump girls, skinny girls. Some have legs like springs and practically jump to the ceiling. Others barely manage to 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. Depending on the size of the school, dozens of girls may compete for only a handful of slots. If you make the squad, you become one of the elite members of the highly stratified social world of middle school students. If you don’t, well, you may not have the word “loser” printed on your forehead, but you feel as though you do.

At Plainfield, however, 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, 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. Kids are encouraged to take part in something-anything-and they turn out in droves. Well over half of the school’s 900 6th through 8th grade students are involved in some sort of extracurricular activity. The student council alone has 100 members, surely a number unmatched by any other middle school.

It’s called “widespread participation,” and Plainfield is famous for the policy, which was implemented when the school was created during a district reorganization nine years ago. Since then, Plainfield has been the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper articles, like the one in the New York Times titled “No-Cut Policy Prompts A Lot to Cheer About,” or the one in Teaching Tolerance called “A Place For Everyone.” The coverage has been altogether positive.

That the school, a low-slung brick building set in a quiet residential neighborhood, has attracted so much attention is a testament to the uniqueness of its philosophy. Other schools may claim to do much the same thing, at least with some extracurricular activities, but at Plainfield the concept of inclusion has been taken to astonishing levels. It is, in fact, what defines the school.

“We’re like the Statue of Liberty,” jokes John Utterback, 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, 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.”

But is it realistic? After all, don’t we live in a world where rewards are supposed to be commensurate with talent and hard work? Doesn’t a no-cut policy simply delay the inevitable sorting process that goes on all the time?

“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 kids to explore new things, to be “generalists.” It is not, he insists, a time to face the ruthlessness of tryouts and auditions.

“When a girl doesn’t make the cheerleading team,” he says, by way of example, “she tries to figure out why she was cut. And almost every time, she comes to the wrong conclusion. But it’s a face-saving mechanism. It’s sometimes hard for kids to understand the criteria behind these kinds of things. They may think, ‘Oh, that person doesn’t like me.’ Or, ‘Maybe I’m too tall.’ Or, ‘Maybe I’m overweight.’ And all of those conclusions are absolutely detrimental. They follow the kids for a long time.”

Most educators accept the idea that students 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. Conservatives 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. In one famous study, schoolchildren rated themselves good at math despite having scored poorly on math exams.

Last year, in an article that sounded almost like an obituary, the New York Times declared that self-esteem is in the grips of an image problem. “Research is indicating,” wrote Kirk John son, “that self-esteem is not in and of itself a strong predictor of success. Criminals and juvenile delinquents, it turns out, often have high self-esteem, using the traditional measurements. New political movements in education have turned on self-esteem and blamed it for students’ failures in learning.” With more policymakers and educators calling for higher standards, self-esteem has taken a back seat. “The new view looks toward the world rather than the self,” Johnson wrote, “and toward results rather than motivation.”

John Leo, a conservative columnist for U.S. News & World Report, read the Times article and cheered its conclusion, writing, “The conception of self-esteem as a kind of commodity one can acquire by constant self-affirmation now appears to be trivial and silly.”

Indeed, a growing number of researchers believe that self-esteem programs in schools are a waste of time. (“Happy Hour,” February.) Even proponents of self-esteem would probably agree that the emphasis on feeling good about oneself has sometimes been taken to absurd lengths. Just recently, the athletic director for Boston’s public schools admitted that, in some instances, he adjusted the scores of lopsided high school hockey games before reporting them to the local newspapers.

“All it’s aimed to do is avoid further embarrassment of a team that was outplayed and basically embarrassed and had their self-esteem hurt during a game,” Rocco DiLorenzo, the athletic director, told the Boston Globe . The practice was quickly discontinued, but not before virtually every conservative radio talk-show host in America cited it as a classic example of self-esteem run amok.

If self-esteem is out of fashion in the education world, Jerry Goldsberry seems not to have heard the news. He admits that Plainfield’s widespread participation policy was implemented in part to boost his students’ self-image, although he’s hardly an ideologue on the matter.

“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. Dressed in a severe black suit, starched white dress shirt, and yellow tie, he looks a bit like an old-fashioned preacher, and when he extols the virtues of his school, he sounds like one, too. “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. It can’t all be based on self-esteem, though, because that’s not going to carry you to the next level. Still, having some confidence and feeling good about yourself is important, and certainly it is for us and our school.”

For Goldsberry and his teaching staff, the most important reason for having a no-cut policy is to give students a positive connection with their school. “And the best way to go about doing that, we believe, is to develop positive relationships with kids. You know, school doesn’t have to be pain, agony, grief, and sorrow.”

If self-esteem is out of fashion in the education world, Jerry Goldsberry seems not to have heard the news.

Ten years ago, district administrators in Plainfield-a pleasant suburb of about 10,000 not far from Indianapolis International Air port-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 kids. So 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.

Before the school was even built, Goldsberry and the new staff began the task of designing Plain field Community Middle School from scratch. J. Howard Johnston, a leading expert on middle schools, was brought in as a consultant. One of his recommendations was that Plain field’s students be engaged in as many extracurricular activities as possible.

The idea struck a chord among the teachers, Goldsberry says, and they quickly moved to make it school policy-even though no one was quite sure how it would work in practice. “There were a lot of unknowns,” says the principal. “But we felt that it was in the students’ best interests to be exposed to as many activities as possible, to have them be generalists, and then let them specialize at the high school. Plus, we weren’t interested in labeling kids as being ‘capable’ or ‘incapable.’”

Shortly after the school opened its doors in the fall of 1990, 76 girls signed up to be cheerleaders. “We just about fainted when we heard that we were going to have 76 cheerleaders,” Goldsberry says. “Who would have ever thought that we would have so many kids?”

It didn’t take long for Goldsberry and his staff to realize that it would be impractical for all the girls to attend sports activities at the same time, so they divided the cheerleaders into squads and assigned them to various sports throughout the school year. But everyone would still get a chance to participate. “They all had uniforms, they all went to practice, and they all got to say they were cheerleaders,” says 7th grade English teacher Martha Jennings.

Guidance counselor Bruce Baker, who doubles as the school’s cross-country coach, remembers 85 kids 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.”

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,” 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.’” Baker managed his huge team all by himself until recently, when he decided it was time to bring in an assistant. This year, his “herd” has about 100 runners.

“It’s wonderful to see so many kids embrace this sport,” says Baker, a gaunt man with wiry blond hair, dressed in a blue blazer, white shirt, and Bugs Bunny necktie. “Just being on the team gives them a sense of belonging that they otherwise wouldn’t have. And, with as many kids as we’ve got, we’re usually pretty good.”

Originally, 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.”

About 50 6th graders are singing “Didn’t My Lord,” a rousing spiritual, inside the school’s windowless choir room. The class is so large that it requires two teachers-Ginger Davis and Jenny Scott-who circulate among the students while they sing, listening carefully to the young voices. Next door, meanwhile, band instructor Dave Copeland is leading about 45 7th graders in a rehearsal of a march titled “The Screaming Eagles,” by John Edmondson. Copeland, patience personified, has the students repeat several measures over and over until they are more or less in synch. “Some of you are getting a good ear on that,” he says. “Try it one more time.”

Actually, the school has 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. (Some students do both, something that few schools allow.) “We don’t cut anybody,” Davis says proudly, “and we don’t have a problem with that. We’re talking a third of the school in the choir. And our numbers stay pretty even from year to year.”

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.

Plainfield’s bands and choirs have won numerous awards, proving that so many students of varying abilities can make good music. The school’s sports teams have excelled, as well. “Take a look at the trophy case,” says Jeff Leath, 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.

Jerry Goldsberry says: “People have told me, ‘If you allow so many kids to participate, you’re going to dilute the quality of the program.’ Well, I take issue with that. Last year, we won, interscholastically, 17 tournament championships. There are schools that would die to have five, or even two. And since we opened the school, we’ve won in the neighborhood of 108. We average 12 tournament championships a year. This year alone, we’ve already won 12, and the school year’s not even over.”

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

But is the policy fair to really good athletes? Are they getting the individual attention they deserve, 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, Baker offers his athletes the choice of two workouts, short or long. After they’ve at tended several meets, he’ll pick out some of the top kids 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 worries if they’re getting enough of his attention. “I’ve had some really good runners who have gone on to do very well in high school, and I’ve often wondered if they would have been even better if I had pushed them more in the 8th grade. But the program fits the needs of the school and the community, and all I’ve ever gotten has been positive feedback.”

Baker concedes that Plainfield’s system would be tough on some old-style coaches, the win-at-any-cost Vince Lombardi types. “It would drive them absolutely nuts to see what they would consider the wasted potential of the top 10 percent of the kids,” he says.

Still, as Baker is the first to admit, widespread participation does not mean forced equality. The student council, for example, may have 100 students, but it has just one president and a handful of elected officers. A kind of tracking exists within the system, and that’s just fine with Goldsberry and his staff members. The fact is, some kids are better athletes than others, and they deserve to be treated accordingly. Leath, the girls’ swim coach, has a core of about 15 swimmers that he takes to every away meet, but he rotates the rest. Everyone gets to participate, but not to the point where the team is no longer competitive. “The success of our teams,” says assistant principal Mark Wilhelm, “has not been diminished because of widespread participation.”

Addie Smiley, a 23-year-old special education teacher who co-sponsors the cheerleading team-and who can still do some pretty awesome jumps herself-says, “With this many girls, we try to divide them up as much as possible so they can get more individual attention. Right now, some of my 8th grade girls are really concerned about making the freshman squad. So I try to give them some programs to work on, on their own.” Her partner, Stacey Hughes, adds, “The girls who are really into it do things like gymnastics on the side. They go the extra mile. And I think that’s true in any sport.”

Thirteen-year-old Christie Theissen, who’s wearing a gold crucifix over her blue Nike T-shirt, is among those who plan to try out for the freshman squad this spring. Taking a break from today’s practice session, she says she’s a little rusty because she hasn’t done much since the fall, when she was a cheerleader for the football team. That’s why she’s been taking a gymnastics class.

Christie admits to getting frustrated with some of the girls who aren’t committed to cheerleading. “Some girls really like it and try really hard,” she says. “But the others don’t really care as much. They don’t have the best attitude for it.”

Miranda Sutton-a 14-year-old with dark, shoulder-length hair and brown eyes, dressed in bluejean shorts and a green Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt-has been cheerleading since 3rd grade. “I love it,” she says. “You get the physical activity of every other sport, and you meet lots of girls.” But she, too, sometimes gets frustrated at the interest level of some of her peers. “A lot of girls don’t take it seriously,” she says. “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,” says the 14-year-old-who’s wearing green plaid shorts, a retainer, and a T-shirt that says, “Keep Life Simple: Live For Cheerleading"--"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, 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, before rejoining her teammates in the cafeteria, “they don’t cut anybody, so I’m really lucky.”