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Racing toward school spirit with the Iron Horse Derby

Published on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020

student wearing Clemson-themed attire at PSH

BCSD photo / Monica Kreber : Tenth-grader Emma Etheridge scored a point for the Silver Team by donning her Clemson gear for a college-themed Spirit Day.

During Philip Simmons High’s morning announcements, there is often some sort of advertisement to students encouraging them to join upcoming “Spirit Days” by dressing in a certain theme.

As an incentive, the students receive a point for their Iron Horse Derby team by donning fun apparel.

The Iron Horse Derby is a new concept this year at Philip Simmons High, where a few student leaders are optimistic about leaving a legacy at the school, and show no pandemic is slowing down school spirit.

Establishing The Derby

The Derby is the brainchild of senior Shane McCartee, who is originally from Washington, D.C. He said the high school he would have gone to up north was known for having a lot of school spirit, with more involvement from the freshman class – something McCartee felt was lacking at Philip Simmons High.

“I kind of missed that super involvement that I had up there,” he said.

McCartee was particularly inspired by the Harry Potter franchise; fans are familiar with the four houses students are sorted into at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Philip Simmons High has previously had “academic” teams with students divided up by grade level, but McCartee envisioned having four teams with a blend of all grade levels on each team, that way the seniors could be more participatory in terms of encouraging the lowerclassmen on their teams.

“I think the freshmen tend to look up to the upperclassmen,” he said.

The teams are Silver, Black, White and Purple. McCartee serves as a leader on the Silver Team, along with senior Joe Buceti.

Buceti said he and McCartee have always collaborated in the past on ways to promote school spirit. Buceti said he and other students supported McCartee’s idea of the derby.

“I, along with a bunch of other people, were just all for it, and understood that it was going to be…definitely a good thing in getting the freshmen and sophomores involved this school year,” he said.

Both students are part of the Renaissance Council Club. The main point of the club is to have students be leaders within the school while simultaneously working to improve the school climate and culture.

Social studies teacher and volleyball coach Jay Watterworth is the Derby’s advisor. Watterworth said McCartee came to him with the idea of the Derby last school year. While Watterworth was excited about the idea, the pandemic put a damper on implementation.

“I knew that his idea was strong enough that I wanted to make sure we implemented this program no matter what,” he said.

A few staff members joined a group of student leaders during the spring via Google Meet and started to plan what the new program would look like.

“This is our fourth year as a high school and now that we have a senior class who has been here all four years and are excited about being an Iron Horse, we are starting to see exponential growth in both student involvement and student pride,” Watterworth said.

Friendly competition

Philip Simmons High is still a fairly new school; last year’s senior class was the first to graduate. This year’s graduating class opened the new school.

McCartee said he hopes this new idea will be one that turns into a legacy – something that will keep going for the years to come.

“It’d be super cool if I had kids and they were on the Silver Team like I was,” he said.

Students can earn “points” for their teams by participating in school-wide activities – like coming out to show support at athletic events.

“A lot of the culture of the school is surrounded by sports…but also how much fun going to a (game) is,” McCartee said. “So if everyone’s going to the football game on Friday, I feel like there’s more energy throughout the school.”

With the pandemic, the school is limited in school-wide events students can participate in, but so far the Derby has held “Spirit Days” with different dress-up themes. Students have dressed up for a “Country versus Country Club Day”, “College Day” and “Tacky Tourist Day". The school is also planning a Spirit Week in November.

Every person who dresses up on these days earns a point for their team.

“We’re trying to get more people to…go out of their comfort zone and participate in these kind of things and show school spirit,” Buceti.

The students are randomly assigned to the teams, but the school has tried to set it up so siblings are on different teams.

Three to four seniors serve as leaders on each team. With the current captains, Watterworth said there are staff members on the teams list names of students who they thought they had the character traits to be a student leader. They then sent out a Google Form to all the seniors on their perspective teams to vote and came with a top three.

Anybody on the teams can step up and lead different activities but the three seniors are expected to lead the group as a whole.

The teachers are also assigned to Derby teams and can earn points as well. Watterworth said the concept has taken off better than he could have hoped.

“Staff and students alike want to earn those points for their teams,” Watterworth said. “We are creating a display in the cafeteria where we will track the progress of the Iron Horse Derby and I think that will help too.”

In addition to limited events, another challenge caused by the the pandemic is getting blended distance learners more involved in the Derby by dressing up and sharing photos from home. The team leaders are working to make sure the BDL students still feel included.

“I think we’re just trying to set the ‘normal’ to be dressing up,” McCartee said.

Despite the challenges, McCartee said he does not think the pandemic has slowed down school spirit.

“I think this year we have way more school spirit that we’ve ever had,” he said.

With a larger senior class this year, along with younger siblings who have joined the school, McCartee said he has seen more participation.

He said he sees lots of students getting into the dress-up days.

“There’s been a drastic difference in participation,” he said.

The goal at the end of the year (pandemic-allowing) is to have a party for the winning team and award that team with some sort of trophy – one that will passed down each year to the next winning team.

Shooting for success

Buceti and McCartee said they think the friendly competition among the teams helps fuel the Derby.

McCartee said a lot of his friends really want the school spirit, but he is really pushing for this concept to stay strong within the next couple of years.

“I just think passing it on to the junior class, and then passing it one more time to the sophomores, I think that will be our biggest issue,” he said, adding, “so something that we’re really focusing on is having our juniors be really involved.”

In a way, the pandemic actually had an opposite effect on school spirit this year at Philip Simmons High; the seniors knew they still wanted to make their final year of high school fun.

“We really thought this was a great opportunity to not just get the senior class involved but get everyone else involved,” McCartee said.

Monica Kreber