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‘We Deserve It’: After Two Years Of COVID Upheaval, Chicago Teens Are Ready For Prom

This spring for students across Chicago, prom — the perennial cornerstone of that final stretch before graduation — doubles as a milestone on the way to reclaiming a measure of normalcy.

Juniors at Sullivan High School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood pose with Miss Teen Rogers Park Alejandra Sotelo after modeling donated prom dresses in the school’s auditorium in April 2022. Sotelo and Sullivan teacher Jodi Weiss (far right in pink dress) secured donations of more than 100 dresses.
Chicago Public Schools
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ROGERS PARK — As the omicron variant surged in Chicago in January, Liset Perez contemplated the spring ahead with rising anxiety: Would the pandemic scuttle the Sullivan High School prom as it did for last year’s senior class on the Rogers Park campus? 

Students like Perez have clung to the promise of such hallmarks of senior year as the coronavirus upended yet another school year.

Several months later, on a late April afternoon, Perez sat in her school’s auditorium and watched classmates sashay across the balloon-festooned stage in flowing chiffon and silk as they modeled some of 100 donated prom dresses secured by a Sullivan teacher and a local beauty pageant winner. 

Prom was definitely on, the school’s principal assured the students, and Perez joined her classmates in a raucous cheer. 

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

Those two years have tested students again and again: Teens have lost loved ones to COVID, navigated racial unrest, taken on jobs to chip in for strained family budgets, and worked to stay engaged in school through campus shutdowns, staffing shortages, and more.

This spring for students across Chicago, prom — the perennial cornerstone of that final stretch before graduation — doubles as a milestone on the way to reclaiming a measure of normalcy. Like Sullivan, some city campuses did not host prom at all last year while others opted for smaller, socially distanced events on the heels of a high school reopening that brought less than a third of students back to school buildings. 

After two years of massive disruption for teens, students like Perez say prom feels more meaningful and joyous — and they are taking none of the build-up for granted. 

Throughout Chicago, educators and others have worked to ratchet up the excitement. Across the city from Sullivan, at the Southwest Side’s Juarez High School, a packed auditorium exploded in applause earlier this spring when the principal unveiled the prom’s location. (No, it’s not the cafeteria again.)

Earlier this spring, Jodi Weiss, a special education English teacher at Sullivan, started worrying. After two years, the school would again host prom — but what if some of its students could not afford a dress? Almost 95% of students are low-income at Sullivan, nicknamed “Refugee High” because it serves as a starting point for many newcomers to the country. 

Weiss posted a call for donated dresses on a Rogers Park Facebook page. She spent a Saturday earlier in March driving around the neighborhood and picking up donations. Some are “not so prom-y,” she said, but she figured students could still wear them to scholarship interviews and other formal occasions. At the end of the day, though, she didn’t think she had enough outfits. 

Luckily, Alejandra Sotelo, recently crowned Miss Teen Rogers Park, saw the Facebook post. Her own prom at a small Catholic high school had been canceled the previous year, yet another festive occasion the pandemic derailed. 

Thinking about students who might miss prom because they couldn’t afford a dress “broke” her, Sotelo told the seniors gathered in the auditorium on that April afternoon. So she sprang into action, lobbying local boutiques and consignment shops for more donations. 

Weiss took over a storeroom the school’s security guards had used for their equipment. Now, racks laden with dresses in sizes 0 to 14 and in a rainbow of fabric, sequins, and lace filled the space, with shoes and other accessories stacked up nearby. The school is still looking for donated suits. 

“You do not have to go shopping,” said Sotelo, now a freshman at Loyola University, in a long black dress and her white sash. “You do not have to spend a ton of money.” 

“Make some noise if you are ready to get out of here!” she called, to loud applause as junior girls modeling some of the donated dresses started parading across the stage. 

They strode arm-in-arm with boys, some wearing suits and some unabashedly underdressed in T-shirts and jeans. Sotelo talked up the dresses — “a stunning navy blue number with butterflies at the sleeves!” — as the couples paused in front of an arch fashioned from white, gold, and black balloons. 

Last spring, prom had returned to many, though not all, Chicago high schools, but events carried reminders of the pandemic’s unyielding grip: Some were held outdoors. Others were confined to gyms and cafeterias, with restrictions on guests and exhortations to socially distance. 

This year, many schools are returning to larger events, and though the district recommends masks, they won’t be required. A slew of schools, from Bowen on the South Side to Lane Tech on the North Side, have organized their own prom attire donation drives. Lane Tech and its alumni association recently hosted a “Prom Pop-up Shop” featuring more than 50 donated dresses. 

Perez, the Sullivan student, and her friends Rodney Mason and Dariana Lee already had outfits picked out the day of the fashion show, but said they will get the word out about the donated dresses. 

They know how disappointed seniors had been to miss prom the previous years. So they are taking nothing for granted: the fun of putting their outfits together, the company of favorite teachers who have signed up to chaperone, even the chance to hone social skills still rusty from pandemic isolation if the school ends up sharing the venue, the downtown Hyatt Regency, with another campus on May 20. 

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

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

Back in late February, shortly after the omicron surge had subsided, principal Juan Carlos Ocon stood in a crammed Benito Juarez auditorium and recounted a conversation with students a few weeks earlier. A table of seniors in the school’s cafeteria had stopped him as he passed by during the lunch hour.

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

“Are we even going to have a prom?” another pressed Ocon. “Are we going to have it in the cafeteria like we did last year?” 

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

So, Ocon said, this year’s seniors were due for some good news.

“Prom is not in the cafeteria,” he said, prompting cheers from the crowd. 

“Prom is not in the gym.” 

More cheers.

“For the first time in three years, we are going to be at the Palmer House in Downtown Chicago,” Ocon said, to raucous applause, almost as loud as when students found out later during the assembly that the nonprofit Hope Chicago would give every Juarez student a free ride to an Illinois college. 

Juarez senior Bella Rios was in the auditorium that day. Like Perez at Sullivan, she had almost resigned herself to graduating without a prom, rebuffing her mom’s invitation to go prom dress shopping. She did not see Ocon’s announcement coming.

When she heard it, she said, “I was completely shocked, and I was really happy. I would be able to experience what other students did not.”

That morning, Rios looked for pictures of the Palmer House’s interior on her phone, eager to picture herself and her friends in that sprawling space. 

Juarez counselor Jesse Palencia said excitement has been building since. The Six Flags Grad Night, the overnight Senior Lock-In at the school, and other events in the run-up to prom have been better attended than usual. The school is also planning a celebration with music, food, and a photo booth for college Decision Day on May 20. 

This year unlike in the past, Juarez students got to pick the dance’s theme, just announced last week: Old Hollywood. 

For teens, said Ashley Baker, a senior at Westinghouse College Prep, the pandemic has heightened experiences as simple as being on campus with friends and infused milestones such as prom with special meaning.

“Everyone’s talking about prom — what colors they are wearing, how we’ll make the place bright and vibrant,” she said. “I feel prom is more meaningful this year. We’re all able to communicate and socialize instead of being 6 feet away from each other.”

Though Baker still masks daily at school, she might go maskless during at least part of the June 10 prom, to show off her makeup and snap photos with friends.

Baker recently collected a swatch of fabric — emerald green sequins — from the seamstress working on her dress. Now she just has to find the perfect matching shoes and accessories. 

Mauricio Peña contributed to this report.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.