With Spirit Squad coach’s resignation, broader questions arise

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    The Palo Alto High School dance team celebrates after winning first place in the Extra Small Dance category last year at a national competition. Hilary McDaniel (top, far right) resigned as head coach of the Spirit Squad two weeks ago. “Ultimately, there are a lot of issues at play, especially with my schedule,” McDaniel said, referring to her decision to step down. Photo: Nathalia Castillo.

    Late nights. Hours of extra work. Plus, with a stipend equivalent to that of an assistant football or junior varsity coach, it was too much to handle and not worth the effort.

    Hilary McDaniel, who announced her resignation as head coach of the Spirit Squad — which includes both the dance and cheer teams — to Palo Alto High School administrators two weeks ago, said the move was motivated by a variety of factors, including her own schedule as well as a lack of solutions to accommodate her situation. McDaniel teaches four periods at Paly: two periods of Advanced Authentic Research, one period of Early Childhood Development and one period of Psychology.

    McDaniel said she initially went to administrators — both with the school and the athletic department — two years ago to discuss her circumstances, but was met with replies along the lines of “We’re not sure,” “It’s never going to change” and “It’s way too complicated.” She began asking for meetings last fall, or maybe even earlier, she said.

    Although she said she doesn’t blame administrative officials for the lack of action, she did note that they “are able” to effect change.

    For McDaniel, the job could be grueling at times. She estimates that she was spending around 25 hours per week on her coaching job, a year-round gig. Coupled with her work as a teacher, “there aren’t enough hours in the day,” she said.

    McDaniel also has young children, the oldest of whom just began his first year at Duveneck Elementary School. Last year, she only taught three periods, but Paly teachers who live outside the district must teach at least four periods for their children to attend Palo Alto Unified School District schools. To satisfy that requirement, she had to take on an additional period, which ended up compounding the problem, she said.

    The cheer team has also had to practice in facilities like the library and Student Center, which are not ideal places to conduct stunts and other similar activities, McDaniel said.

    McDaniel also said she has had to combine some of the activities of the Spirit Squad’s different sub-groups, in part to make the load more reasonable. According to English teacher Alanna Williamson, who serves as the dance team’s assistant coach, the cheer team has grown from about 20 kids three years ago to over 30 kids this year.

    “With only one stipend provided by the district, I’ve had to do some combining to make it manageable,” McDaniel said.

    McDaniel said she was receiving one Category C stipend — which ranges from $3,122 to $3,747 — per season.

    She acknowledged that athletic programs have to make sacrifices, but she also reiterated the need for those sacrifices to be equitable among the different programs. Making stipends more equitable as well would be “appropriate,” she said, as would adding more stipends to the program in general.

    “I feel like I don’t hear a recognition that there are some inequities,” McDaniel said. “And if you can’t even admit that there are inequities, how do you move forward in addressing them?”

    Inaction, not a lack of sympathy, is the issue, McDaniel said.

    “It’s not that people aren’t sympathetic — I think they are sympathetic — but there’s been no action, and I just can’t keep waiting for that change to happen,” McDaniel said.

    For senior Sam Guernsey, a member of the cheer team, McDaniel’s resignation is indicative of a broader issue.

    “Replacing one [coach] wouldn’t really fix the problems,” Guernsey said. “To my understanding, the problems are deeper than that.”

    McDaniel did express optimism about the new athletic director, Therren Wilburn, and Janice Chen, the assistant principal of teaching and learning, under whom athletic matters fall. McDaniel hopes both of them, she said, will reevaluate policies related to the Spirit Squad and facilitate communication to avoid such problems in the future.

    The new Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning, Janice Chen, checks in students during Flex. Chen said that Paly administrators are doing what they can to make stipends more equitable among the coaches of different sports. Photo: Nisha McNealis.

    The new Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning, Janice Chen, checks in students during Flex. Chen said that Paly administrators are doing what they can to make stipends more equitable among the coaches of different sports. Photo: Nisha McNealis.

    Chen, who is new to Paly this year, said that school administrators are currently in talks with PAUSD Human Resources to address the putative stipend inequity. Chen noted that both stipends and the four-period teaching requirement mandated by the district are out of the control of Paly officials, but that they’re working to address whatever does fall under their jurisdiction.

    “Principal Diorio had tried to work with Coach McDaniel in the spring to ease and support her teaching load as much as possible so that she can continue on to be the cheer coach and Spirit Squad coach,” Chen said.

    Chen also said that Wilburn is working to make access to athletic facilities more equitable, and trying to change the “culture” of how the Spirit Squad is viewed.

    For years, cheer — even competition cheer — has not been officially considered as a sport, according to Williamson. The team has not been eligible to receive sports booster funds, and consequently has had to raise all of its funds independently, she said.

    “Our program isn’t under athletics, so we don’t have the same help as other teams,” Williamson said. McDaniel added that the Spirit Squad has to both support other teams and participate in its own competitions, which is unique among Paly’s sports.

    This year, that changed: Competition cheer is now officially classified as a California Interscholastic Federation sport. In accordance with the bill, which was signed in 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, the cheer teams of individual schools must fit the definition of a sport accepted by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights to be considered as part of a school’s compliance with Title IX.

    But cheer programs must actively request that classification as an official sport, according to Williamson. The Paly cheer program, although currently lacking that designation, wants to and is open to figuring out a way to get it, McDaniel and Williamson said.

    Still, regardless of official classification, Chen said she believes a “stigma” persists about cheer, and acknowledged that inequities like the ones McDaniel described exist.

    “We [administrators] definitely recognize that there are inequities — I want to make that very clear,” Chen said. “I think just in general we all know that there’s a stigma attached to cheerleading. A lot of people out there don’t think it’s a sport, and that’s something — that’s a culture — that we’re changing.”

    Questions remain about how the Spirit Squad will move forward without McDaniel. Williamson and Nicole Varveris currently serve as the team’s assistant coaches, but neither has assumed McDaniel’s role.

    “As of right now, we don’t have a head coach, or director of either dance or cheer,” Guernsey said. “And we don’t know when or if we are going to get one.”

    Williamson and Varveris had a meeting scheduled with school administrators today to discuss the immediate future of the dance team. The job vacated by McDaniel has also been posted to the community in hopes of finding a replacement who is “just as passionate” a coach as McDaniel was, Chen said.

    McDaniel, though stepping away from her role, voiced support for the Spirit Squad.

    “I do care a lot about the Spirit Squad program,” McDaniel said. “It’s heartbreaking to me to have to step away, and I really hope that they can find ways to get the program the resources it needs for it to be successful.”

    Isabella Marcus contributed reporting to this story.

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