Prom prep started early last Friday at River Terrace, a school for D.C. kids with profound physical and intellectual disabilities. Help with hair and makeup began at 7 a.m. sharp. River Terrace is a Title 1 public school where every student qualifies for free or reduced lunch, which means a few kids required more than just styling assistance—they needed threads, too.
The students and teachers raised nearly $1,300 to bankroll the party, and the community donated dresses and shoes too.
“We had girls crying because they’d never been that dressed up before,” says Belkis Praslin, a coordinator at the school’s workforce development center.
Everyone had to be fully glammed and ready by 9 a.m., when the party bus arrived to transport most of the school’s 45 students to the Waterford, a hotel in Springfield, Virginia, where all the trappings of promdom awaited: a temporary dance floor, a photo booth, a DJ with a totally DJ name (DJ K-No).
Because River Terrace opened just two years ago, it’s still trying out traditions, explains Jamin Hollingsworth, a teacher in workforce development. Last year, they went nautical for prom and rented the Spirit of Washington, a Potomac River cruise boat, which they shared with an elementary school.
This year, the venue was theirs alone.
“If we had these students in a conventional school, they’d probably sit in a corner and not engage, or they’d be made fun of,” says Aimeé Cepeda, principal at River Terrace. “Here, they get to celebrate with their peers.”
Because River Terrace is a preparatory school—students don’t get diplomas but instead receive workforce training—some will only be there for a year. So prom is big deal, maybe bigger even than at traditional schools.
“I plan on getting a full-time job that has me pay my bills,” 18-year-old student Tonita Neal says about what she wants to do upon graduation. Pedro Casarrubia, 19, says he plans to go to college. Noah Stewart, 18, is interested in becoming a ballroom attendant but is actually much more stoked about the new Wonder Woman movie. He is, after all, a teenager, like most of his fellow students.
And teenagers go to prom in June because, well, that’s what they do. It’s also why prom is so important at River Terrace.
“We want them [the students] to know they’re as valued to us and as special to us as kids are at any other school,” Cepeda says.
The students arrived at the Waterford by 10:30 a.m. to a buffet stocked with pizza, chicken fingers, fries, and ice cream. A candy table by the door was festooned with giant gold “2017” balloons, and lights on the columns around the room glowed green, then pink, then green again. The tables were filled with students nervously eating and eyeing each other.
Thirty minutes later, virtually everyone, even those using wheelchairs, was on the dance floor. And they tore it up. A few kids seem overwhelmed by the music, which was ear-splitting and religiously pop. They stayed in their seats but looked like they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
At the photo booth, friends and faculty mixed easily against a black-and-white paisley backdrop as ice cream was served. A line formed but quickly disappeared as the students refueled on sugar and returned to the dance floor to cut loose for the last few songs.
Back on the party bus, the kids spilled into the aisles and mugged for pictures. It was lunchtime and the sun was high in the sky, but you wouldn’t know it from the scene inside the bus.
“They would’ve been happy if we decorated the gym,” says Christina Sandoval, one of the teachers on the prom committee.
Maybe, but that was before the party bus and DJ K-No showed them what prom could be.