Written by Jacquelyn Goss, Point Boro schools
For most high school students, attending the prom is a rite of passage, one of pre-college life’s significant milestones. For these students, the prom represents the culmination of their high school careers, serving, as a bridge between their past and future selves, and providing a glimpse into the diverging paths they and their peers will soon take.
But for students with special needs, attending the prom can seem like an unattainable dream. An activity made exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, because of these students’ unique needs.
Whether a student’s disability requires the assistance of a nurse or aide, who would typically be unable to work an evening event, or for those who require assisted mobility devices that certain venues cannot accommodate, or who might be upset by loud noises and strobe lights, attending the prom can pose insurmountable challenges.
And considering the fact that many special education programs for students with multiple disabilities typically retain their students until they reach age 21, thereby negating traditional grade level assignments, additional questions arise regarding which prom – junior or senior – would be appropriate for these students to attend.
This was the question that plagued the teachers of Point Pleasant Borough High School’s Life Skills Program for Students with Multiple Disabilities, who, for years, struggled with how they could bring the prom experience to the students in their program.
“The prom is such an important experience in the lives of high school students,” said Ms. Anne Gearing, who along with Phyllis Thomson serves as the Life Skills Program’s teachers. “Mrs. Thomson and I wanted our students to have that experience, so we began having discussions about which prom event they might be able to attend. We knew that, although our students have every opportunity to attend either the junior prom or the senior ball, they might not be as comfortable in a larger, and potentially unfamiliar crowd.”
But the seed was planted, and while both teachers agreed that although the existing prom events might not be the best fit for their students, there was no reason that they couldn’t create a new event. And thus, the concept for the Spring Prom, a prom designed specifically for students with special needs, was born.
Deciding to have a Spring Prom was the easy part - where to host it, what to do about volunteers and how to pay for it – that was the hard part.
For a traditional prom, students from the respective grade level, typically purchase prom bids or tickets at a pre-determined price, to spread the event’s cost among a large pool of attendees. With an anticipated guest list consisting of just six students, funding the prom through traditional means would be impossible. Never ones to back down from a challenge, however, Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing, with the full, enthusiastic support of both high school and district administration, got to work, pounding the pavement in search of donations, planning fundraiser after fundraiser, all to make their students’ dreams of attending a prom, a reality.
And their combined efforts paid off, raising enough money for the First Annual Spring Prom in 2013.
“All six students from the Life Skills Program along with 23 student volunteers attended last year’s inaugural Spring Prom,” said Mrs. Thomson. “Our students had a wonderful time at their first ever prom, and it was awesome to be able to experience it with them. We knew that, going forward, we wanted to make the prom bigger and better.”
A feat they achieved with the Second Annual Spring Prom held at the Spring Lake Manor on May 1, an event that attracted double the amount of attendees – that’s double the number of special needs students and double the amount of student volunteers!
“Based on last year’s success, we decided to invite some additional students, who, although they are not in the Life Skills class, do have special needs,” said Mrs. Thomson. “We drew an additional six special education students from the high school’s resource centers, bringing the total of special needs students in attendance to 12.”
And as for the student volunteers? Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing had to begin turning volunteers away as their numbers swelled to 47, a mix of students from the high school’s student ambassador program and the key club as well as a number of students from Technology Teacher Nick Gattuso’s Computer Programming class, the same students who have been working with the Life Skills kids to develop the Panther Assisted Learning Software or PALS applications.
On Thursday, May 1 the group of 59 students joined together – the special needs students with their non-disabled peers – to dance the night away to tunes courtesy of DJ Mitch Remig, while professional photographer Kristen Adams from More Than A Memory Photography snapped their photos. The photos will be used to create individual scrapbooks for each of the special needs students.
After reluctantly taking a break from the dance floor, the students, seated side-by-side at fancy clothed tables, dined on a catered buffet that included everything from chicken nuggets and French fries to chicken francaise and steak tips, while the other guests, including the teachers and paraprofessionals who work with the special needs students each day, members of the district’s Child Study Team, Mr. Gattuso, Physical Education Teacher Pat Brady, High School Principal Kurt Karcich and a number of the students’ family members looked on with a sense of awe at an event that would previously have been unthinkable, if not for the hard work and dedication of Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing.
And work hard they did! After anticipating the increased interest in the Second Annual Spring Prom, Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing began their planning early, preparing for a larger guest list and the incorporating of added perks for the students – including, the embossed photo albums as well as a candy kiosk with satin bags printed with the event name and date.
“To fund this year’s prom, Phyllis [Thomson] and I held a massive gift auction in February, which was sponsored by the Point Pleasant Elks,” said Ms. Gearing. “We worked very hard soliciting donations of products and services from local businesses while also searching for available grant money. Our hard work paid off and we raised enough money to fund the entire prom.”
The funds the teachers raised covered everything including the venue and the food and the commemorative gifts for the students. The Life Skills students put their vocational skills they’ve learned to use, creating decorative elements and other special touches for the prom. The students created custom napkins and gift bags emblazoned with the event name and date with their classroom embossing machine. The students, both the guests and volunteers, made use of their gift bags, stuffing the satin bags to the brim at the candy kiosk, while the adults in attendance received a ceramic pin, created by the Life Skills students, as an expression of their gratitude for an unforgettable evening.
“From the ball gowns to the music, to the excellent food and good times with friends, this, by all accounts, looked like the typical prom,” said Mrs. Thomson. “But nothing could have been further from the truth, while I’m sure those proms are great, this event was just extraordinary and demonstrated the spirit of community-based learning, which is central to our program. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped make this evening possible and for giving our students one of the greatest nights of their lives.”
For the general education student volunteers, the experience was as, if not more, meaningful. Many of the volunteers indicated that they enjoyed the Spring Prom more than their own proms, citing the opportunity to help their fellow students, coupled with the general fun and stress-free atmosphere as the primary reasons.
Supervisor of Pupil Personnel Services Rita Miller said the credit for the students’ universal enjoyment of the Spring Prom is reserved largely for Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing, explaining, “This event has truly been a labor of love for Phyllis Thomson and Anne Gearing. They were determined to give their students the opportunity to experience a prom, in a safe and caring environment, and they did everything in their power to accomplish that and I applaud their efforts.”
“Although, I know I speak for both Mrs. Thomson and Ms. Gearing as well as for anyone who attended the Spring Prom, that the best, and most rewarding thanks was the smiles and laughter of the special needs students,” added Ms. Miller. “To watch our special needs students, some of whom have compromised mobility among other disabilities, dance in the middle of a circle, bordered by their non-disabled peers, who were cheering them on every step of the way and who were there for them, lending a hand or two whenever the need arose, made this experience, for me, one of the most profoundly gratifying moments of my professional life.”Visit www.pointpleasant.k12.nj.us for more about Point Pleasant Borough Schools