The energy coursing through Fairfax County Public Schools’ “Day Prom” on May 17 was almost dizzying.
Inside the main ballroom at The Waterford at Fair Oaks, a disk jockey kept up a stream of crowd-pleasing songs, from “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.”
(CLICK HERE for a slide show of photos from the event)
Students, teachers and aides crowded the brown parquet floor, with those in wheelchairs forming a solid phalanx in the left rear corner. Some of the youths whooped and gyrated together, while others got down on the floor solo to practice their break-dancing moves.
Falls Church High School student Clay Munroe, 22, was enthusiastic about attending his second Day Prom, said his mother, Vicky Munroe of Vienna.
“He didn’t have a good night’s sleep, he was so excited about coming,” she said. “Some kids understand more than others. They see their siblings doing this, so it really helps them feel like anybody else.”
Students came dressed in their best outfits, from form-fitting dresses to snazzy suits, and clamored to have organizers in the lobby add the finishing touch of a corsage or boutonniere.
Proceeding to the left, the revelers entered a room and posed on a backdrop of seamless white paper while a photographer with a pair of umbrella strobes snapped their photos.
South Lakes High School senior Halle Taylor, 18, was ready for her close-up, having donned a purple cowboy hat with silver stars in homage to her favorite singer.
“Lady Gaga is TheBomb.com,” said Taylor, who was attending her fourth Day Prom. “I love her so much. She is my model.”
Her English teacher, Rachael Crawford, said the prom was a great opportunity for inclusion, because participating schools now bring general-education students to the event as well.
“It also gives, especially for some of our more severely special-ed kids, the chance to have a prom,” she said. “Some of the higher-functioning kids go to the schools’ regular proms, but a lot of those kids don’t. It’s a safer environment during the day, with more chaperones.”
Chris Pascarella, a transition specialist at Robinson Secondary School, started the Day Prom event in 2001. The program began with just three schools and now attracts about six times that many, she said.
Pascarella made sure to thank The Waterford’s management, which received a small deposit from the school system for the event and donated time from its staff. The venue also let participating schools bring in food, which was a big plus, she said. The photographer and disk jockey also donated their services, she added.
The May 17 prom drew 153 students and one scheduled for May 24 at the same location likely will attract 240 more, she said.
Students in the school system’s Category B special-education program are eligible to attend. Twenty-four students in wheelchairs came to the May 17 event, which ran from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“You’ll see. They won’t come off the dance floor,” Pascarella said as the students filed in that morning. “It’ll be non-stop dancing once the music starts. We have to stop the music so they’ll eat.”
Those who needed a breather from the action migrated back to their respective schools’ tables, perhaps pausing first to pick up glasses of water or soft drinks.
Each participating school contributed something for the event. Students and teachers at South Lakes High School, for example, made corsages and brought some food, Crawford said.
“It’s a good time to unwind, get together and have a bunch of fun,” said Thomas Lamb, a teacher with the Best Buddies program at Centreville High School.
“They get to meet friends they don’t normally get a chance to see, in a super-fun environment,” added Kathleen McGuire, who co-sponsors the program along with Lamb. “You get a real mix of students who can come and be with their buddies.”
Best Buddies pairs typically developing teenagers with students who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, with the aim being to form lifelong friendships, she said.
Parents of special-needs children also benefit from the Day Prom, McGuire said.
“It brings a lot of smiles to the parents because it’s fulling a dream that they had for their kids that, when they found out about their disabilities, that dream might have been crushed or put on hold,” she said.
The May 17 prom was the second attended by Jessica Berns, who teaches math, English and life skills at McLean High School.
“I love seeing all my students have such an amazing time with their friends,” she said. “It’s a great time for teachers, too.”