In pandemic-stricken Chicago high schools, prom is a big deal

The struggle to rebuild school communities after two years of uncertainty in the age of the pandemic.

As the omicron variant hit Chicago in January, Liset Perez looked to the coming spring with growing anxiety: Would the pandemic wreck Sullivan High School’s prom the way it did? last year’s senior class on the Rogers Park campus?

Students like Perez have clung to the promise of such features the past year as the coronavirus has upended another school year.

Several months later, on a late April afternoon, Perez sat in her school’s auditorium and watched her classmates walk through the stage festooned with flowing chiffon and silk balloons as they modeled some of the 100 dresses. proms given by a Sullivan teacher and a local beauty pageant. winner.

The ball was definitely on, the school principal assured the students, and Perez joined his classmates in a loud cheer.

“We deserve it because we’ve worked so hard for the past two years,” she said later.

These two years have tested students again and again: Teenagers have lost loved ones to COVID, navigated racial unrest, taken jobs to contribute to strained family budgets, and worked to stay engaged in school. during campus closures, staffing shortages, etc.

This spring for Chicago students, prom — the perennial cornerstone of that home stretch to graduation — doubles as a milestone on the road to reclaiming a measure of normality. Like Sullivan, some city campuses didn’t host proms at all last year while others opted for smaller, socially distanced events following the reopening of a high school which brought less than a third of students back to school buildings.

After two years of massive disruption for teens, students like Perez say prom is more meaningful and joyful — and they’re taking nothing of the buildup for granted.

Across Chicago, educators and others worked to increase excitement. Across town from Sullivan, at Juarez High School on the Southwest Side, a packed auditorium erupted in applause earlier this spring when the principal unveiled the location of the prom. (No, it’s not the cafeteria anymore.)

A young man and a woman cross a stage in ballroom attire.

Students model donated dresses in the auditorium at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. A teacher from the school organized the collection of donations.

Mila Koumpilova / Chalkbeat

Sullivan High hosts major prom dress donation drive

Earlier this spring, Jodi Weiss, a specialist English teacher at Sullivan, began to worry. After two years, the school would have a prom again – but what if some of its students couldn’t afford a dress? Nearly 95% of students are low-income at Sullivan, nicknamed “Refugee High” because it serves as a starting point for many newcomers to the country.

Weiss posted a call for donated dresses on a Rogers Park Facebook page. She spent a Saturday earlier in March driving around the neighborhood and picking up donations. Some are “not so prom-y,” she said, but she thought students could still wear them to scholarship interviews and other formal occasions. At the end of the day, however, she didn’t think she had enough outfits.

Fortunately, Alejandra Sotelo, recently crowned Miss Teen Rogers Park, saw the post on Facebook. Her own prom at a small Catholic high school had been canceled the previous year, another celebratory occasion the pandemic derailed.

Thinking of the students who might miss prom because they couldn’t afford a dress, Sotelo told the seniors gathered in the auditorium that April afternoon. So she sprang into action, lobbying local boutiques and consignment stores for more donations.

Weiss took over a warehouse that school security guards had used for their equipment. Now shelves laden with dresses in sizes 0-14 and in a rainbow of fabrics, sequins and lace filled the space, with shoes and other accessories stacked close by. The school is always looking for donated costumes.

“You don’t have to go shopping,” said Sotelo, now a freshman at Loyola University, in a long black dress and her white sash. “You don’t have to spend a ton of money.”

“Make some noise if you’re ready to get out of here!” she called, to loud applause as junior girls modeling some of the donated dresses began to parade onto the stage.

They walked arm-in-arm with boys, some wearing suits and others shamelessly under-dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Sotelo spoke about the dresses – “a stunning navy number with butterflies on the sleeves!” – as the couples stopped in front of an arch made of white, gold and black balloons.

As of last spring, prom had returned to many, but not all, Chicago high schools, but the events were a reminder of the pandemic’s unyielding grip: Some were taking place outdoors. Others were confined to gymnasiums and cafeterias, with restrictions on guests and urgings to social distance.

This year, many schools are returning to larger events, and while the district recommends masks, they won’t be required. A slew of schools, from Bowen on the South Side to Lane Tech on the North Side, have held their own prom clothes donation drives. Lane Tech and its alumni association recently held a “Prom Pop-up Shop” with over 50 donated dresses.

Perez, Sullivan’s student, and her friends Rodney Mason and Dariana Lee had already chosen outfits on the day of the fashion show, but said they would spread the word about the donated dresses.

They know how disappointed the seniors were to miss the ball in previous years. So they take nothing for granted: the fun of putting together their outfits, the company of favorite teachers who have signed up to chaperone, even the chance to hone social skills still rusty from pandemic isolation if school ends up share the venue, Downtown Hyatt Regency, with another campus on May 20.

During another difficult school year, Mason said, “Prom is a good thing to focus on to keep a positive spirit.”

“We’ll be one of the lucky ones,” Lee said. “It’s going to be really special for us. It’s been a long year.

A young man and woman walk through a decorated school stage.  The young woman wears a black ball gown.

Juniors at Sullivan High School on Chicago’s Far North Side donated prom dresses in the school’s auditorium in April 2022. The school did not hold a prom in 2021.

Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools

At Juarez High, the principal unveiled the location of the prom during a school assembly

In late February, shortly after the omicron surge subsided, principal Juan Carlos Ocon stood in a crowded Benito Juarez auditorium and recounted a conversation with students a few weeks earlier. A table of seniors in the school cafeteria had stopped him as he passed at lunchtime.

“We are a bit sad,” said one student. “Are we going to have the graduation ceremony in the parking lot again?”

“Are we even having a prom?” another pressed Ocon. “Are we going to have it in the cafeteria like we did last year?”

“Class of 2022, you know the last three years have been so tough,” Ocon told students in the auditorium that day. “Your sophomore year was interrupted in many ways. Your freshman year was crazy. And if you thought those two years were crazy, this year was even crazier.

So, Ocon said, this year’s seniors were bound to receive good news.

“The ball is not in the cafeteria,” he said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

“The ball is not in the gymnasium.”

More cheers.

“For the first time in three years, we’re going to be at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago,” Ocon said, to raucous applause, almost as loud as when the students discovered later during the assembly that the nonprofit Hope Chicago would give every Juarez student a free ride to a college in Illinois.

Juarez senior Bella Rios was in the auditorium that day. Like Perez to Sullivan, she had almost resigned herself to graduating without a prom, rebuffing her mother’s invitation to go shopping in a prom dress. She didn’t see Ocon’s announcement coming.

When she heard it, she said, “I was completely shocked and really happy. I could live what the other students didn’t.

That morning, Rios searched for pictures of inside the Palmer house on her phone, eager to imagine herself and her friends in the sprawling space.

Juarez adviser Jesse Palencia said the excitement has been growing ever since. Six Flags Grad Night, Senior School Night Lock-In and other events leading up to prom were busier than usual. The school is also planning a celebration with music, food and a photo booth for Middle School Decision Day on May 20.

This year, unlike in the past, Juarez students were able to choose the dance theme, announced last week: Old Hollywood.

For teens, said Ashley Baker, a senior at Westinghouse College Prep, the pandemic has heightened experiences as simple as being on campus with friends and imbued milestones such as prom with special meaning.

“Everyone is talking about prom – what colors they’re wearing, how we’re going to make the place bright and vibrant,” she said. “I think prom is more meaningful this year. We’re all able to communicate and socialize instead of being 6 feet apart.

Although Baker still masks every day at school, she might go mask-free for at least part of the June 10 prom, to show off her makeup and take pictures with friends.

Baker recently retrieved a fabric swatch – emerald green sequins – from the seamstress working on her dress. Now all she has to do is find the perfect shoes and accessories.

Mauricio Peña contributed to this report.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago’s public schools. Contact Mila at [email protected]

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