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Building Leaders, One Debate and One Cheer at a Time
Jonathan Choperena (Los Angeles ’14) has always preferred to take the road less traveled.
As a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, he set out to join the cheer team but learned that there hadn’t been any men on it for over three decades. Soon enough, he earned a spot on the squad and altered the way the Golden Bear athletic program viewed cheerleading.
“I love challenges,” he says, recalling the initial reservations of Cal’s spirit director about how the crowd would respond to a male cheerleader. “Not only did I earn everyone’s respect, but since I’ve graduated, they now have three men on the team, so I’m glad to see the landscape at Berkeley change.”
After graduating in 2014 with a degree in political science, Choperena moved to Los Angeles to join Teach For America. During his first days teaching at Manual Arts High School, he learned that his new school also had no varsity male cheerleaders—and no female ones, either, as cheerleading was strictly a club sport at the time.
Following a request from his principal to develop a full-fledged cheerleading program, Choperena was back in familiar territory. However, building a varsity program from scratch, especially as a first-year history teacher, would be a challenge.
Retention was the biggest issue, he says, but he gradually solved it “by focusing on what the students wanted to get out of it, so that they would feel more ownership toward what we were building as a team.”
If that wasn’t enough for his first year, Choperena’s principal approached him with another proposition: The debate team also needed a new coach. Choperena, who plans to attend law school after teaching, jumped at the chance, despite having no debate experience. “My students will tell you I’m passionate about education, policy, and law, and in a way, debate is the intersection of those three fields,” he says.
The responsibilities of being a first-year cheerleading coach and debate coach would overwhelm a lot of people, much less a rookie teacher. But Choperena has thrived in the hectic environment, and is now entering his third year in this triple role.
With his debate students, Choperena sees his role evolving from strictly building the academic skills necessary to compete in debate to providing context for his students on how debate topics like climate change are directly connected to daily life in their community. “We’re seeing that this student-centered approach has yielded results on all three fronts, starting with the classroom,” he says, noting that his 180 sophomores saw an overall increase in proficient and advanced scores on the state exit exam.
Choperena has taken the debate team to a national tournament in Berkeley, and at a recent competition at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), Manual Arts took home five trophies—including a clean sweep of the speaker awards.
“I see debate as a very practical way for our students to uncover literary skills,” he says, “so that they’ll be equipped for when they go to graduate school or become professionals in the future.”
Choperena makes it a point to have the students meet with each other regularly to find avenues to improve their overall experience. This year, he says, the team members informed him that in order to build a more inclusive environment, they need to actively recruit more girls and African American students.
Meanwhile, the cheer team has exceeded expectations; what started as a club is now a Division II varsity sport. This past year, they were invited to events at Universal Studios, where they raised money for their school and performed before the likes of actress Elizabeth Banks.
More importantly for the Manual Arts cheerleaders, they are making networking inroads and developing leadership skills. “They wanted to get more involved with the community, so they’ve taken the initiative to organize several workshops with local elementary schools every year about how to build school spirit,” he says.
One cheer team member, Jennifer Valdez, even enlisted college cheerleaders from the University of Oregon and CSULA to visit Manual Arts and speak to students about how the sport served as a pathway to college for them in the form of scholarships.