District 196 cheer programs offer leadership skills, mentorship opportunities
What sport teaches girls how to work hard, be a team player and develop individual leadership skills? Rashanda Bruce thinks the answer is clear: cheerleading.
Bruce is the program director and head coach for the Apple Valley elementary and middle school cheer teams, and she dedicates hours each week to training District 196 youths.
A former cheerleader and captain at Burnsville High School, she’s been working with Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District cheering programs since 2011. She moved to her current position in 2014 to develop a strong feeder program for the middle and high school teams.
The elementary team began practicing in early October. They meet once a week at Echo Park Elementary School. Although the team prides itself in its “Eagle” identity, all girls in District 196 are welcome to participate in this Community Education-sponsored activity.
Bruce said the elementary program has grown exponentially this year. She attributes it to the fact that they’ve cut down on costs by transitioning the focus of the elementary team from competition to performance. This means parents no longer have to purchase expensive uniforms.
While in past years 12-16 girls have shown interest in the program, 43 girls are registered for the elementary team this year. With the help of five volunteer assistant coaches, Bruce said she is helping these young girls “learn how to love this sport, be better athletes and be better be people in the world.”
Cheering gives girls the skills needed to find success both in the sport and in life in general, Bruce said, and she knows just how important it is to work hard and develop confidence.
Bruce graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and minors in philosophy and legal studies. After graduation, she worked as a paralegal at Robins Kaplan, a law firm in downtown Minneapolis. Currently, Bruce is a full-time student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul and she will graduate in May 2018.
Assistant coach Alexis Anike, a sophomore at Eastview High School, knows firsthand how influential cheering can be. She said the sport has helped her build confidence, develop self-respect, conquer stage fright and made her a better student.
“It’s helped with presentations in school — being able to stand in front of a crowd and be comfortable. It makes it easier to express yourself,” Anike said.
Many of the coaches expressed similar sentiments. They said they volunteer with the elementary cheer program because they want help others develop the qualities Anike described.
Assistant coach Aisa Campbell, a senior at Apple Valley High School, said she coaches because she thinks the sport helps girls learn to build each other up.
“Cheering is a different kind of sport because it centers around helping other people feel better about what they are doing,” Campbell said. “It’s good to help each other out and make sure everyone is doing great and being there for one another.”
Assistant coach Kailey DeKraker, a senior at Apple Valley High School, said she thinks the elementary team helps provide opportunities for the middle school team to build leadership skills as well.
“It’s a really cool opportunity for the middle schoolers because they are put into a role that they wouldn’t be able to do in a normal setting. They really become a good role model for what they should do,” DeKraker said.
Anike agrees that the opportunity for younger and older participants to work together makes the program unique.
“You don’t see many teams where they do have all three levels interacting with each other. They are creating a really good bond that allows them to trust and look up to the other girls,” Anike said.
Many of the coaches found mentors in their own coaches when they were younger. Assistant coach Sierra Smith, a nursing student at the University of Minnesota and a graduate of Eastview High School, said she travels to Apple Valley because cheering was formative for her, and she hopes it will be for other girls as well.
“I never knew what cheerleading was until high school, but the seniors my freshman year were my role models. They encouraged and taught me very much. It’s an honor to be a role model to these cheerleaders and it will push me to be the best coach I can be,” said Smith.
Bruce said her coach was “instrumental” in her life, helping her with everything from developing better cheer techniques to filling out college applications.
“For me, cheer is my relief. I go to practice and I forget about how crazy my life is or how crazy the world is,” Bruce said. “Cheer gives girls the space to develop confidence and it gives give them a happy place to escape, be with friends, have fun and get away for a few hours.”
She said she sees growth in every student, from the beginning to the end of the first class and from the beginning to the end of the season. Bruce hopes that the new performance-focus will help the elementary students learn to focus on being the best they can be.
“Winning is great, but it’s not everything,” Bruce said. “At the end of the day we want to do our best and we want to have fun. Sure, winning is great but it does not define you.”
Bruce is grateful for the members of her cheer teams, her assistant coaches and the community.
“It’s been so nice to have that support. The community is definitely supportive. They’ve helped me with anything I’ve needed,” she said. “It speaks to the program and how much it’s grown.”
Contact Amy Mihelich at firstname.lastname@example.org.