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In Chicago high schools affected by the pandemic, prom is a big deal

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In Chicago high schools affected by the pandemic, prom is a big deal

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

When the Amicron version intensified in Chicago in January, Lisett Perez pondered growing anxiety about next spring: wouldn’t the pandemic close Sullivan High School prom, as it did last year at the Rogers Park High School?

Students such as Perez clung to the promise of such distinctive features of the graduation year as the coronavirus interrupted another academic year.

A few months later, in the late April afternoon, Perez sat in the auditorium of her school and watched as classmates sat down through a balloon-hung stage in flowing chiffon and silk as they modeled some of the 100 donated graduation dresses provided by Sullivan’s teachers and local beauty contest. the winner.

The prom was definitely over, the school principal assured the students, and Perez joined her classmates in a storm of cheers.

“We deserve it because we’ve worked so hard the last couple of years,” she said later.

Those two years tested students over and over again: teens lost loved ones because of COVID, moved with racial unrest, got jobs to tap into a busy family budget, and worked to stay busy at school through campus closures, staff shortages and more.

This spring for students across Chicago’s prom – the eternal core of this final stage before graduation – is a milestone on the way back to normal. Like Sullivan, some city campuses last year did not host graduations at all, while others opted for smaller, socially remote activities after high school rebuilding, which led less than a third of students back to school buildings.

After two years of mass interruptions for teens, students like Perez say the prom is becoming more meaningful and joyful – and they don’t take any of the build-ups for granted.

Across Chicago educators and others worked to raise the excitement. Across the city from Sullivan, at Juarez High School in the Southwest Side, a packed auditorium erupted in applause earlier this spring when the principal opened the prom venue. (No, it’s not a cafeteria again.)

A young man and a girl walk the stage in graduation outfits.

Students modeled donated dresses in the auditorium of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. The action of donations was organized by the school teacher.

Mila Kumpilova / Chalk

Sullivan High is hosting a big donation campaign for prom dresses

Earlier this spring, Jodi Weiss, an English special education teacher in Sullivan, began to worry. Two years from now, the school will have a prom again – but what if some of her students can’t afford a dress? Nearly 95% of low-income students in Sullivan are nicknamed the “High Refugee” because it serves as a starting point for many newcomers to the country.

Weiss posted a request for donated dresses on Rogers Park’s Facebook page. Earlier in March, she spent Saturday wandering the neighborhood and collecting donations. Some are “not such graduations,” she said, but she felt students could still wear them to scholarship interviews and other formal events. After all, she didn’t think she had enough outfits.

Fortunately, Alejandra Sotella, recently crowned Miss Tyn Rogers Park, saw the post on Facebook. Her own prom at a small Catholic high school was canceled the previous year, and another festive occasion for the pandemic has derailed.

Reflecting on students who may miss graduation because they can’t afford a dress that “broke” it, Sotela told high school students who gathered in the auditorium that April day. So she started acting by lobbying local boutiques and consignment shops for additional donations.

Weiss occupied the pantry that the school guards used for their equipment. Now the shelves, loaded with dresses ranging in size from 0 to 14 and in a rainbow of fabric, sequins and lace, filled the space, and next to it were stacked shoes and other accessories. The school is still looking for donated costumes.

“You don’t have to go shopping,” said Sotela, who is now a freshman at Loyola University, in a long black dress and white belt. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money.”

“Make noise when you’re ready to get out of here!” she exclaimed to loud applause as some of the donated dresses began to march around the stage.

They walked hand in hand with the boys, some were in suits and some were indecently dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Satela talked about dresses – “stunning navy blue room with butterflies on the sleeves!” – when the couple stopped in front of an arch sculpted of white, gold and black balloons.

Last spring, prom returned to many, though not all, Chicago high schools, but events were reminiscent of the pandemic’s unwavering grip: some were held in the fresh air. Others were restricted in gyms and cafeterias with restrictions for guests and calls for social distance.

This year, many schools are returning to larger events, and although the district recommends wearing masks, they will not be needed. Many schools, from Bowen on the south side to Lane Tech on the north side, have organized their own graduation donation promotions. Lane Tech and its Alumni Association recently held a “Graduation Store” that featured more than 50 donated dresses.

Perez, a Sullivan student, and her friends Rodney Mason and Dariana Lee have already chosen outfits for the fashion day, but said they will learn about the donated dresses.

They know how disappointed the seniors were when they missed the prom in previous years. So they don’t take anything for granted: the fun of collecting outfits, the company of favorite teachers who signed up for a companion, even the opportunity to hone social skills that are still rusty from a pandemic if the school ends up splitting downtown Hyatt Regency , with another campus on May 20th.

During another challenging school year, Mason said, “Graduation is a good thing to focus on to keep a positive mind.”

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

A young man and a girl walk on a decorated school stage.  A young woman dressed in a black prom dress.

In April 2022, students at Sullivan High School in the Far North of Chicago modeled donated prom dresses in the school hall. In 2021, the school did not have a prom.

Provided by Chicago Public Schools

At Juarez High School, the principal presented the place of the prom at the school meeting

Back in late February, shortly after the Omicron surge subsided, director Juan Carlos Ocan stood in Benito Juarez’s crowded auditorium and recounted a conversation with students a few weeks earlier. A senior table in the school cafeteria stopped him as he passed by at lunchtime.

“We’re kind of bored,” said one student. “Are we going to hold a graduation ceremony in the parking lot again?”

“Will we even have a prom?” another clicked on Ocon. “Will we have it in the cafeteria like last year?”

“Class 2022, you know the last three years have been so tough,” Okon told students that day in the auditorium. “Your second year has been interrupted in many ways. Your junior course was crazy. And if you thought those two years were crazy, this year was even more so. ”

So, said Okon, this year’s seniors are waiting for good news.

“Prom is not in the cafeteria,” he said, causing applause from the crowd.

“Prom is not in the gym.”

More cheers.

“For the first time in three years, we will be at Palmer House in downtown Chicago,” Okan said to loud applause, almost as loud as when students learned later in the assembly that Hope Chicago, a nonprofit, would give Student Juarez a free ride. to the College of Illinois.

Juarez Sr. Bella Rias was in the auditorium that day. Like Perez in Sullivan, she almost resigned herself to graduating without a prom by refusing to invite her mother to go shopping for a prom dress. She has not seen the Ocon ad.

Hearing this, she said, “I was completely shocked and I was really happy. I could experience what other students did not feel. “

That morning Rios was looking on her phone for photos of the interior of the Palmer House, wanting to present herself and her friends in this large space.

Juarez adviser Jesse Palencia said there has been growing unrest since then. Six Flags Grad Night, high school night classes and other events on the eve of prom were better attended than usual. A celebration with music, food and a photo area is also planned at the college on May 20 to make a decision-making day at the college.

This year, unlike last year, Juarez students have to choose a dance theme announced just last week: Old Hollywood.

For teens, said Ashley Baker, a high school senior preparing for Westinghouse College, the pandemic has improved simple experiences such as being on campus with friends, and has given special meaning to stages such as prom.

“Everyone is talking about graduation – what colors they are wearing, how we will make this place bright and bright,” she said. “It seems to me that this year’s graduation is more meaningful. We can all communicate and communicate instead of being 6 feet apart. ”

Although Baker still wears masks at school, she can practice without a mask at least during the prom on June 10 to show off her makeup and take photos with friends.

Recently, Baker collected a sample of fabric – emerald green sequins – from a seamstress who was working on the dress. Now all she has to do is find the perfect shoes and accessories.

Mauricio Peña contributed to this report.

Mila Kumpilova is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, which covers Chicago’s public schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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