More than 16 years ago, Poplar Tree Elementary School’s then special education teacher, Chris Pascarella, had a vision of her students’ upcoming high school experience. She just couldn’t accept the reality that the students before her, who loved music and moving to all kinds of rhythms, might not get to experience a high school prom. Pascarella felt that they deserved a signature dance where they could make some lifelong memories. So, she organized a small prom specifically for high school students with special needs.
Since the early 2000s, this prom, with each year’s theme being “A Day to Remember,” has grown into an annual springtime event that brings hundreds of students together from schools across Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). This May, 336 high school students were able to experience the 16th Annual Day Prom — all with the help of 205 teachers and general education student volunteers.
“When I taught special needs students at Poplar Tree, I knew they loved music,” Pascarella said. “When they were old enough to be going to high school, I started organizing a small dance for the special needs students at Herndon High School and two other schools. At first, we had the event at the Hyatt in Reston, but we’ve since outgrown that space. It grew from three schools, to now students in special ed programs from 18 schools.”
Day Prom, hosted at the Waterford in Fair Oaks, has become an annual event that students anticipate for much of the academic year. The annual dance has gotten so large that organizers had to break the event into two days. This year, the two dances took place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 17, and then again on Wednesday, May 24.
“Of course, it’s so rewarding to see Day Prom come together every year,” said Pascarella. “The students start asking about it at the beginning of every school year.”
Although this prom is not an official FCPS event, its execution takes the collaboration and cooperation of special needs teachers and Parent Teacher Student Associations (PTSAs) from each school that participates. The Waterford donates the space to hold the event, and the deejay contributes his time and service free of charge. The rest of it is up to teachers and parents to make sure these students get the prom they look forward to every year, even getting creative where necessary.
“In previous years, many of the schools used to send the students in limos,” Pascarella said. “Many schools now use the FCPS buses. Some schools fund-raise, and some PTSAs make donations in order to collect money for food, transportation, and everything else.”
The morning of Wednesday, May 24, students from nine high schools arrived at the Waterford – Chantilly, Herndon, Lake Braddock, Lee, Oakton, Robinson, Stuart, Westfield and Woodson.
Girls stepped off the school buses in vibrant dresses, and the young men entered the Waterford in button-down shirts, suit jackets, and, many in ties. Before they entered the ballroom, with a wide wooden dance floor surrounded by round tables for taking breaks and eating lunch, teachers and student volunteers pinned boutonnieres to the boys’ suit jackets and slid corsages onto the girls’ wrists.
David Raich, a special education teacher at Westfield High School, arrived at the dance with two busloads of students. He said the energy among his students was nothing short of electric.
“They look forward to their prom,” Raich said. “They talk about it all year. And, we as teachers spend classroom time preparing them for meeting new people from other schools, for dancing, and we review the proper manners for the event. Before the dance starts, some of the female teachers will do hair and makeup for some of the students. Male teachers will help tie and fasten the ties. It’s really like Christmas for them. They get off the bus with big smiles. It’s really good for self-esteem.”
Teachers and case managers from special needs programs attend the dance as both chaperones and as part of a support system for their students.
Speech pathologists Erin Andreani and Stacy Pete, both from Lee High School, came to the dance prepared to help their students exercise communication skills.
“If we see one of our students needing an intervention as they try to communicate with any of the other students here, we’re here to step in and help them facilitate a conversation,” said Andreani, who also works at West Springfield. “Being here allows us to see how our kids are reaching their communication goals outside the classroom. And, for the kids here who do go to the general ed prom with their own school, Day Prom is great preparation.”
Pete enjoys being at Day Prom both to see her students demonstrate what they’ve learned in the classroom, and to witness them enjoying themselves in a typical social setting.
“We like to see our kids out in the community, and, in this case, getting to have a prom of their own,” Pete said. “They don’t have to miss out on fun things. Here, they get to enjoy what everyone, including the gen ed kids, does.”
Even though their time at the Day Prom was a work day for school staff members, the teachers said there is no way that Day Prom can compare even remotely to a regular day in the classroom.
“For most of these kids, a late night prom would just be too much,” said Marianne McKeon, a career preparation teacher at Robinson. “Here, they get to experience a semi-formal dance. They all love music so you get to see their little walls come down. This is a day they can be with their buddies, having a good time, without us hovering.”
Just like any classic high school dance, teachers stood at the edge of the dance floor nodding to the beat of both today’s hits and more classic party songs like the “YMCA” and “The Cupid Shuffle.” At this prom, some teachers and student volunteers were on the dance floor, making sure that everyone, even the students in wheelchairs, could lose themselves in the cheerful music.
After 16 years of Day Prom, Pascarella said that planning for it has almost become second nature to her. Booking venues and designating tasks to different groups of teachers is practically reflexive to her. What she will never get used to, or take for granted, is the feeling she gets from seeing all the students soaking in everything at their own prom.
“They are just so happy,” Pascarella said, watching some of the students skip from the room where their photos were taken, into the ballroom. “I have no doubt that when I retire, someone else will take over. This event has become too important. Every year, without fail, both parents and students start talking about it in September, and everyone involved is excited to start the planning process in winter.”