Cheerleading team welcomes special ed students


Aurelia Yang and Belinda Zhou

Away from the splendor of performing under bright stadium lights in radiant uniforms, the cheerleading team has been breaking boundaries behind the scenes: for the first time in Lynbrook’s history, the team has taken action to help integrate students with special needs into its program.

The commencement of the new year and the implementation of the Academy Community and Transition (ACT) program welcomes an addition of five cheerleaders with special needs to the team: Alicia Wang, Sabrina Khan, Michelle Wu, Jadyn Armstrong and Kim Tran. The ACT program was designed to meet the needs of high school students with a spectrum of disabilities, focusing on community-based interaction to aid students in exploring different career environments and developing communication skills.

At the dawn of the 2016-17 school year, the cheerleading coach, Coach Afton Usry, sent out an email offering all ACT students who might express interest in participating in cheerleading the opportunity to join. Toward the end of the first semester, Heather Amirault, a teacher for students with special needs who works alongside the ACT program, assisted Coach Afton with recruiting more students for the team and coordinating events and practice times.

Although the idea of building the Sparklers team, the team composed of students with special needs, has been in the making since August 2016, the program was only recently actualized; nevertheless, the cheerleaders with special needs are ecstatic about this exciting new opportunity. The experience has helped these students acquire new cheerleading skills, in addition to obtaining a fresh perspective of their peers who they spend several hours a week with.

“It feels like I’ve been expressing myself, learning how to be a good leader and trying to support my team,” said Alicia Wang, a member of the Sparklers team.

The coaches and cheerleaders have also been building a more unified team by actively working to narrow the gap between the cheerleaders and the Sparklers team.

“Typically we bridge [the gap] by having them work separately and then come back together and do their parts together,” said Coach Afton. “I keep them together for as much stuff as I can to all really feel like they are one team; I don’t want them to feel segregated.”

The coaches have furthermore been working toward helping the cheerleaders with special needs grasp skills at a steady pace. Repetition, for example, is a specific teaching method that Coach Afton often utilizes.

“I make them do things over and over again,” said Coach Afton. “Repetition and consistency are especially important for the Sparklers team because of their developmental delays.”

Additionally, the skills that the Sparklers team learn may differ from those practiced by the other cheerleaders.

“They learn all the words to the cheers just like us and some of the cheers,” said Marie Karpinska, one of the cheerleading captains this year. “Some of the motions are pretty fast, so we have them step-clap. We also have them do very simple stunts.”

This year, the cheerleading team hopes to spend more time focusing on its routines for sports home games and building their new team to attain a strong foundation for next year’s competitive cheerleading team. Moreover, the cheerleading team hopes for the Sparklers to gain exposure within the Lynbrook community in order to encourage more students with special needs to join the team in upcoming years. The Sparklers team exemplify qualities of determination and enthusiasm, contributing a positive and cheerful attitude toward their teammates and adding to the general atmosphere during practices.

“[The cheerleaders with special needs] are very determined,” said Karpinska. “Even when they started cheer, they were very excited to learn cheers and go to the basketball games. They participate a lot, and they’re very eager to participate.”

The cheerleading team has taken Lynbrook one step closer to improving the communication between students with special needs and the Lynbrook community through implementing the ACT program. Students with special needs are able to benefit from being in a friendly environment for them to expand their skillsets and form long-lasting memories.