MAYS LANDING — Rebecca Hutchinson, 21, of Dorothy, and Rose Comas, 19, of Brigantine, huddled together and giggled as they prepared to walk down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City — also known as the Atlantic County Special Services School gym — Friday morning.
“This is my last prom,” said Hutchinson, who wore an elegant party dress from JC Penney and a sparkling necklace. “I’m graduating. I’m sad I have to leave my friends.”
The prom, coordinated by the staff at the school for children with disabilities, is an annual declaration that every student deserves a big party to celebrate a momentous achievement in their lives. But there are mixed emotions.
The future for many of the students may be uncertain. Some will be able to work, many will not. But all will have the memories, photos and videos from a school that has been a second home.
“This is the best program,” said Carol Miskiewicz, of Northfield, whose daughter Shannon, 21, will graduate in June. Her aunts and grandmother came to see her walk with her escort, Nick Tull.
“The prom gets better every year,” Miskiewicz said. “From the first day of school, the kids are asking about it and what the theme will be.”
The prom is a major project for staff, who begin working in late January. Physical therapist Kathy Huenke, resplendant as Glinda the Good Witch, and aide Krista Huettl, decked out in gingham as Dorothy in her red slippers, coordinate a group that includes teachers, aides, food service and maintenance staff, who spent the past three days converting the gym into Oz, complete with flying monkeys and a miniature lighted hot-air balloon.
The school also gets help from friends and supporters. The prom’s theme is somewhat dependent on Absegami High School, which donates decorations from its previous year’s Project Graduation. AtlantiCare supplies corsages and a DJ, who kept students dancing to Taylor Swift and Beyonce. Prom dresses were donated for those who needed them. The Education Foundation donates toward expenses, and the potted perennials used as decorations are purchased by staff after the event.
“We scrounge and recycle,” Huenke said.
The daylong event started early, as seniors from Debe Carpenter’s cosmetology program at the nearby Atlantic County Institute of Technology came over around 9 a.m. to style hair. Carpenter said they talk a bit beforehand about the special needs of the students, but students are used to dealing with all types of clients.
When one student had a mild seizure, Carpenter quickly moved a hot curling iron as Special Services staff took over. The student recovered and a little later was in line with classmates for the traditional promenade through hallways lined with scenes and quotes from the movie, as well as excited parents with cameras.
Parents started arriving about 10 a.m., jockeying for the best spots near the entrance to the gym, which has been decorated as a courtyard with bright green paper welcoming visitors to Oz.
Student Wayne Smith, 20, of Galloway Township, said music is the best part of the prom and he’s happy with this year’s theme. He tells his mom he wants to watch the movie when they get home.
Students pose for photos on a small bench, but once inside the gym, it is time for the parents to leave. A student’s aide may be present, but it’s just not cool to have mom at the prom.
Melody Tull, whose son, Nick, 20, is Shannon Miskiewicz’s date, said he was excited to dress up for the event.
“His brother went to the Mainland (Regional High School) prom, so he wanted to get dressed up, too,” Tull said. “I just love this day.”
Principal Eric Flecken, dressed as the Cowardly Lion, has been at the school for 23 years, seven as principal. He said the prom is appreciated by students and parents.
“This is a chance for the students to be just the same as any other high school student,” he said. “They do see their brothers and sisters going off to the prom, and they want to do the same.”
The event is open to all of the district’s high school students, and since special services students can remain in school until they are 21, many get multiple proms.