On an early-June afternoon, chants of “T-I-G-E-R-S” echoed off the walls of a dance studio at the Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School (KCAPA). The award-winning Kensington High School cheerleading team was hard at work during an offseason practice.
“A lot of dedication goes into being a Kensington Tiger because if you’re not putting the effort into it, if you don’t want to be in here through the summer, through vacations — winter breaks, Thanksgiving breaks, Christmas breaks — then it’s not for you,” said Kathy Rosa, a rising senior cheerleader. “We have a record to uphold, and we’re not going to fail for anybody.”
The team is a reigning district champion, having won back-to-back District XII championships in the Philadelphia Public League’s small division, which has earned the team a spot in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) state championships, held in Hershey each of the last two seasons.
“The feeling was greatness because at first when we competed, we thought we didn’t have it and we didn’t have enough confidence,” said Kamira Worthen, a rising sophomore cheerleader. “But when we heard that we won, we started crying and hugging. And there was just so much emotion.”
The team can be seen cheering on the Kensington football and basketball teams, and during its competitive cheer events. It’s led by head coach Amber Rawls, who also teaches some of the team members as a dance teacher at KCAPA, and co-coach Evelyn Banks, to whom Rawls credited a lot of the team’s success.
“It is really amazing,” Rawls said. “Coach Banks and I just took over the team three years ago, so to win the championship two out of the first three years is amazing. It’s really awesome, and we are still riding that wave.”
Cheerleading has four separate divisions mostly based on the number of members on the team. The small division has a maximum of 15 members, the medium division has between 16 and 20 cheerleaders and the large division has anywhere over 21 members. A coed division varies in the number of members but has both male and female cheerleaders.
On top of winning the last two small division district titles, the team has also walked out of the Liacouras Center on Temple University’s campus, where the district championships take place, with the spirit award in two of the last three seasons.
The spirit award is given out each year during the district title competitions to the team that displays most energy and sportsmanship throughout the whole day, both during the team’s routine and while watching the other teams’ performances.
“It’s just cheering on everyone that hits the floor — even your competitors — because in order to hit the floor, we know exactly how much work goes into that,” said Rawls of winning the spirit award. “All the practices, all the sweat, and all the bruises. It takes a whole lot of work just to get out there.”
The official season for the Kensington cheer squad wraps up with the PIAA championships, but the team has transitioned to a year-round schedule with practices held four days a week at KCAPA and Fusion Tumbling & Fitness in Fishtown.
The team will also start newly introduced morning training sessions planned for this summer thanks to Planet Fitness’s Teen Summer Challenge that allows high school students to work out for free during the summer.
Rawls announces sign-ups for the team every May and hosts official tryouts in September after a full summer of training. Students from all three schools that form the Kensington Multiplex (KCAPA, Kensington High School, Kensington Health Sciences Academy) are welcomed to sign up, as well as students of nearby schools who do not have a cheer team.
“We don’t always get students from the outside schools as much as I try to advocate for them and let them know that we’re here,” Rawls said. “But if you’re in a surrounding school that does not offer cheer, you’re able to come to the closest school that does.”
After the tryouts in September, the team is trimmed down to its official small division varsity team, while other members make junior varsity.
Competitions for the team bring on a rigorous schedule of practices and training to ensure the team is prepared.
“We work hard all summer, all winter, and throughout the fall,” said Adrianna Pagan, a member of the team heading into her senior year of high school at KCAPA. “It’s hard doing everything, like, with the stunts we don’t always get it at first, but when we won first place, it showed us that everything we do is worth it.”
During the competitive season, the team holds five weekly practice sessions, which include regular practices, tumbling practices to perfect flips and things of that nature, and select Saturday rehearsals where they bring in instructors from the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) to oversee the team’s routine.
“We bring them in to overlook our routine, help us with our routine, and give us some pointers and tips,” said Rawls. “We try to bring them in as often as we can afford.”
On top of the fees to bring in the NCA, the waters, sports drinks, and snacks needed for the team’s daylong competitions at various events such as games, districts, or state championships, also come at a cost.
To cover the team’s costs, the team has different types of fundraisers such as Yankee Candle sales, pie sales, an online donation fundraiser, and plans to do a car wash in the future, Rawls noted.
According to Rosa, Rawls has also come out of her own pocket to supply the team with funding at times to make sure the team has the extra stuff the school does not provide.
When asked about Rawls, several cheerleaders praised her effort in going above and beyond the duties of an average coach, with many referring to her as a “mom.”
“The most rewarding part about being a Kensington Tiger cheerleader is that I grew a family,” said Tyannah Long, a rising junior team member.
Kiki Perez, a rising junior cheerleader, detailed a story about how she was struggling in one of her classes and though she had only recently moved to the area and joined the team, Rawls helped her pull her grade up.
According to Rawls, about 90 percent of the team made honor roll and she hopes that number keeps rising next year.
“If you have a bad grade, and you see [Rawls] coming your way, you already know what’s going to happen,” Worthen joked.
Altogether, being a member of the KHS cheerleading team is more than just competing on the mat.
“Being a cheerleader, coach is always on top of us for our grades, attendance — with everything — because it takes everything to go into cheer,” Rosa said.
What did you think about this story? Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.
Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte