Paw Prints Special Needs Cheer Squad Levels Playing Field
The girls on the cheer team attend Plant High School, and will be on the sidelines at Friday's game against Armwood High.
Since she was young, Jo Anne Jagodzinski watched her little sister struggle.
Jaci, now 14, can't talk. She's not potty trained. And she copes with epilepsy and autism.
This summer, Jo Anne, a senior at Plant High and co-captain of the cheer team, came up with an idea to honor students at her school who had special needs like her sister's.
She wanted to level the playing field for kids with disabilities by adding them to the school's cheerleading team.
"If we didn't have support from the administration," said Dara Leslie, volunteer coach, "this wouldn't have happened.
Last spring, Jo Anne's friend Lauren Leslie, Dara Leslie's daughter, sent her a story she'd read about a girl named Sarah Cronk.
Cronk was 15 when she founded and coached what some call the nation's first high-school based inclusive cheerleading squad at Pleasant Valley High in Bettendorf, Iowa. She was featured on CNN and People magazine, and took the stage at the Oprah show.
Eventually, Cronk founded Sparkle Effect, a nationwide program that encourages teens to include kids with disabilities to participate in school cheerleading and dance programs.
So in August, when Head Coach Nereia Cromier chose Jo Anne and Lauren as co-captains of the team, the girls started working on a plan.
A week before school started, they met with school administrators about the idea. Then, Jo Anne talked to a Plant teacher in Exceptional Student Education - a program for kids with special needs - about recruiting cheerleaders and spreading the word.
Lauren used Skype to talked to Cronk, getting advice from her on chants and techniques for the special needs kids. Start with simple chants, she told Lauren.
Then, keeping in line with the Plant High Panthers, the all-inclusive cheer team called themselves "Paw Prints," and used the slogan "Leaving Our Imprints On Your Heart."
Jo Anne also informed the 20 varsity cheerleaders that the eight with special needs who would join them to cheer during the first quarter of home games this year that their positions were voluntary. If they had reservations about the idea, they didn't have to participate.
None of them expressed concerns. So off went the Paw Prints to cheer on their Sept. 14 home game against Jefferson High.
Practice was held inside the school on Monday afternoons to avoid heat exhaustion for some of the special needs kids. Even so, no one knew what to expect.
Then came the rain.
"They get out there, and the skies open up, and it pours," said Dara Leslie. "We didn't know what to do, but those 20 varsity girls grabbed them and ran them to shelter. Under the bleachers or the concession stand."
Plant High is one of a handful of Florida schools with a special needs cheerleading team, and the only one in Hillsborough County. Mitchell High in New Port Richey is the closest Tampa Bay-area school to Plant with a special needs cheerleading team.
Lauren and Jo Anne hope the program remains, even after they walk across a stage with their Plant High diplomas.
"Our goal at the end of this year is to spread it through Hillsborough County," said Lauren. "We want other schools in our area to recognize this is something important and uplifting."
Plant High School, 2415 S. Himes Ave., plays at home against Armwood High on Friday, Oct. 26. The game starts at 7:30 p.m.