Ostrich feathers, sparkling rhinestones and a dramatic train.
When the dress designer asked what else Akaylah Jones wanted in the custom-made ball gown for her first and last high school prom, she declared it had to be “massive.”
“I wanted it to be big so that when everyone sees me walk in, they’re like ‘Ooooooo,” Akaylah said.
The 17-year-old Baltimore City student’s senior prom is scheduled for Friday. The pandemic canceled her junior prom last spring.
The Dunbar High School senior is among thousands of Maryland students for whom the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted three consecutive school years. As education shifted online, many teens lamented losing the cultural benchmarks of high school — from homecoming games to graduation ceremonies — that their parents, teachers, older siblings and peers enjoyed.
Still, some teens say this year’s prom is a chance to make up for those lost moments in one night of revelry and glamour. They’re going big, choosing themes that are more lavish than kitsch and hors d’oeuvres over sit-down meals (so as not to risk staining their gowns and tuxedos).
And the adults are going all in, too. Principals are shelling out for floor-length gowns. Schools are working to lower costs and offering transportation to make the dance as accessible as possible. Overeager parents are receiving sarcastic reminders from their kids that prom is a closed event.
The prom tradition gives many teens an opportunity to stand out, but this year’s party offers a shot at feeling normal. Administrators say it’s a chance to celebrate their students’ resilience. The Sun spoke with students across the region about their plans for prom.
These are some of their stories.
Roarin 2022′s at Dunbar High School, Baltimore City
When Akayla’s junior prom was canceled, she recalled feeling “bummed.” Then she paused to reconsider.
“Not bummed,” she said on second thought. “Actually, I was furious. I wanted to experience both of my proms.”
The Dunbar senior was envious when she got wind of Baltimore-area private schools that managed to hold proms last spring. And she listened closely when her older sister, now attending Coppin State University, said her only regret from her own prom was not getting involved with the planning.
So when it became clear that the class of 2022 would get its senior prom this spring, Akayla immediately asked her principal how she could help.
Dunbar’s prom committee is small with just two members, including Akayla, but the planning involved the entire senior class. The teens used pandemic-tested technology like Google classrooms to post pictures of potential venues and to poll their peers on themes, decoration and music.
The class chose a “Great Gatsby” theme over alternatives like rodeo or royalty. And they decided on finger foods — the “fancy option” — instead of a formal meal, Akayla said.
“We want it to be a magical night where you don’t get anything on your clothes and you just enjoy being with the class,” she said.
Still, her committee position afforded her advanced knowledge of the party attractions, including two red carpets, photo booths and lots of glitzy decorations. When classmates stop her in the hallway to ask for the prom particulars, she demurs.
“All I can say is ‘You shoulda joined the committee.’”
Red Carpet Affair at Woodlawn High School, Baltimore County
Jamel Jernigan, principal at Woodlawn High School, still has the dress she purchased for the prom that was canceled by the pandemic in 2020.
For this year’s comeback prom festivities, she had a new dress ready — a floor-length, sequined black gown. She had to get something to match the “Red Carpet Affair” prom theme.
“It’s more than what they’re used to seeing me in — a blazer and a blouse and a skirt or a pantsuit,” Jernigan said. “So the kids should be amused as well.”
Jernigan — like her students — hasn’t been able to experience a Woodlawn prom since 2019. After years without the high school milestone, she and her fellow educators are eager to attend prom and see their students decked out in Hollywood glam.
“As principal, I do a lot of dealing with the problems on our campus, the problems within our school community and resolving problems,” Jernigan said. “But for me, prom is one of the times where we can just go and have a good time with students. It is just like the kids can let their hair down and have fun — and myself and my team can do that as well.”
Staff members worked to make sure the prom experience is accessible to all students. Yalonda Booker, senior assistant principal, came up with the idea of a bus to take students to the event, which took place May 14 at Martin’s Westminster.
Booker said the transportation option moved some parents, who originally didn’t plan to get a limo, to book a stretch.
“COVID was such an eye-opener to us,” said Aisia Lambert, the Woodlawn senior in charge of prom planning. “We’ve realized we shouldn’t take things for granted all the time because they can be gone in a snap.”
Masquerade Ball at Centennial High School, Howard County
J’Pia Isbell, 19, of Ellicott City, never had a chance to attend her senior prom.
Graduating from Centennial High School in Ellicott City in 2020, her prom was canceled due to the pandemic.
“When I found out that I wouldn’t be getting a prom, I was a little bummed because I had made [my dress] with my own hands,” she said. “When they told us that all we were doing was taking pictures, I was a little sad.”
Now a second-year student studying education at Howard Community College in Columbia, she finally had the chance to attend her high school’s prom, which was held April 23 at The Hotel at Arundel Preserve in Hanover.
Invited by a friend at the high school, she dressed in a light blue mermaid-style dress, which she said she altered specifically to fit the event’s masquerade ball theme.
Isbell said it meant a lot to her to be able to attend prom with her friends.
“[My friend] knew I was bummed when I didn’t get to go [to prom] as a senior, so knowing that she wanted me to go with her so that I could have a prom, it felt nice,” she said.
A Prom for All Ages!, Carroll County
Attendees of Carroll County’s A Prom for All Ages! on May 6 were able to dance, have their photos taken and enjoy snacks in an accepting environment, according to organizers.
While many school proms now allow students to wear whatever they want and bring someone of the same sex as their date, it “takes a lot of courage to do that,” according to Joy Fisher, president of PFLAG Westminster, an organization for parents of LGBTQ children.
PFLAG sponsored this prom; it was not associated with the local school system.
“You don’t know if you will be made fun of or if you’ll be called names,” Fisher said. “It takes even more courage to do a slow dance.”
At Prom for all Ages!, at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ hall in Westminster, those concerns are replaced with more typical teenage angst, she said.
“There is no need to have bravery to dance with whom you want to dance other than the courage needed to ask,” Fisher said.
PFLAG Westminster has hosted popular Valentine’s Day dances in the past, Fisher said, but the pandemic put a stop to those. When COVID numbers started going down, organizers started thinking about hosting another prom.
Fisher said about 140 people attended the prom.
“It was absolutely fabulous. Beyond anything we could have ever dreamed,” she said.
Admission was free and while everyone was invited, she said mostly teenagers and middle-school students attended. Chaperones were present and snacks were available. All attendees could have their photograph taken and received a free print to take home.
“It is for all ages from 2 to 99,” Fisher said. “Kids, adults, all of us need a safe place.”
Participants were encouraged to wear what they wanted, said Fisher, who donned a tux for the event.
“The kids had the best time,” Fisher said. “They were dressed in shorts to gowns and tuxes. It thrilled my heart.”
Golden Gala at Aberdeen High School, Harford County
After two years of cancellations, Harford County’s prom season finally came back. Harford County Public Schools kicked off prom season April 8 with Aberdeen High School’s at Water’s Edge in Belcamp.
“Prom was important to me because it was one of the last things I’m going to experience with my senior class,” said Shayla Talley, an Aberdeen High senior. “The last dance of my high school career, and last dance to be around people who you went through high school with, saving and making memories.”
Principals were determined to hold proms this year, said Mike O’Brien, the Harford school system’s executive director of secondary school instruction and performance.
“Plans for prom started in the spring of 2021 for prom in the spring of 2022,″ O’Brien said. “We arrived at the current prom plan after the latest wave of COVID began to wane.”
Excitement was high among students for Aberdeen High’s first prom in three years, Talley said.
“If I missed [prom], I feel like I would be left with a feeling of emptiness because I just missed out on a good time,” she said. “I would have felt left out or behind if I did not go.”
After prom, students gathered to eat and have an after party, including Talley, who said she “had a good time with friends.”
Midnight Garden, Northeast High School in Anne Arundel County
At Northeast High School in Anne Arundel County, this year’s prom featured ax-throwing, a pretzel wall with a nacho cheese fountain, an escape room, a mechanical pig, a s’mores bar and cotton candy with lighted sticks.
Senior Ellie Hermann, the class vice president, said organizers wanted to make sure the April 30 event had something for everyone.
Hermann who helped plan the prom along with other class officers and parents, said this year’s event is a little different because it was sponsored by the community, not the school, due to fundraising constraints earlier this school year.
The Evening Sun
The class officers and parents raised money through a bingo fundraiser, and then started planning the prom, figuring out what they could afford, calculating ticket prices and booking entertainment.
“We had the ability to poll students to figure out what everyone wanted,” Hermann said. “We tried to plan a prom we thought everyone would enjoy.”
She said there wasn’t much interest in a sit-down meal for the event, so organizers opted for food you can eat while walking around, like chicken tenders or a taco-in-a-bag.
The event was held at the Maryland Yacht Club in Pasadena, and much of it was outside, Hermann said.
Hermann held a prom dress drive, dubbed the Pasadena Princess Project, for the third year in a row this spring. The drive was already in motion in 2020 when the pandemic hit and they continued it in 2021 for private proms.
“We left high school sophomore year and it hasn’t completely gone back to normal,” she said. “Prom is that one really big normal thing that is finally returning.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Allana Haynes, Tony Roberts, Katie V. Jones and Rachael Pacella contributed to this story