Miami-Dade special needs students don silk, satin for prom day

Amanda Lambert might never share a first-date kiss, drive a car or play a varsity sport, but the 21-year-old Michael Krop Senior High School student will always be able to claim a title that generations of teenage girls have coveted: Prom queen.

Thursday, during a luncheon dance that the Miami-Dade School Board threw for students with special needs, called the Spring Social, Amanda — in a body-hugging hot pink cocktail dress and sparkling earrings — took the tiara and declared: “I was shocked.’’

Then she added: “It’s really nice being prom queen.”

The countywide event, in its eighth year, may be the only one of its kind in the U.S., and has grown larger and more elaborate every spring, this year hosting 600 young men and women battling sometimes life-altering disabilities.

Unlike conventional proms, attending this event at Jungle Island didn’t cost a fortune. Thanks to the district’s special education teachers and administrators, and community contributions – Fox-Mar Photography took portraits of every child, EMG Entertainment spun the records, and both Men’s Wearhouse and Becca’s Closet donated gowns and tuxes – it was free.

Bernie Fernandez, a special education teacher who helped supervise 35 students from South Miami High School, said she incorporated prom preparation into her lesson plans in recent weeks. The students talked about dressing up, etiquette and communication in class.

Students in her program seem to master their skills more easily when the lessons are fun, she said, and her “kids have been very excited” about the prom for weeks.

The dance, she said, allows children with learning disabilities to use social skills they’ve been practicing at an event that caps the school year “on a positive note, and celebration.”

Chris Martin, who teaches adaptive physical education at North Miami Beach Senior High, arranged his students in a circle Wednesday to teach them dance moves to the beat of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. “We have goals in the class, but I really enjoy seeing them smile and have fun,” Martin said.

Amanda, who is developmentally delayed, practiced her dance moves with music videos, so when a DJ rolled Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night, she was ready to dance with her “king,’’ George Pink of Project Accept, in a felt crown.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho cancelled a business trip to crown the king and queen, and announced to raucous applause that disabled kids in the district will always have a prom of their own – so long as he’s in charge.

At Krop, prom day began at 8 a.m. sharp. About a half-dozen girls from the school’s Best Buddies program, which pairs disabled children with typically developing peers, helped girls slip on their silk and satin dresses and fasten their shoes. Boys in tuxedos sat like penguins on ledges waiting for limos to arrive. Moms primped their daughters’ hair. Hugs were exchanged and pictures taken. At 9, the school’s honor guard made an arch of swords through which the children walked arm-in-arm on their way to two limos. Teachers, administrators and students applauded.

Tracy Biondolillo adjusted her son Louis’ tie, and told him how handsome he looked. “He’s 19, and he’s beautiful,” she said, losing the battle with her tears.

In the limo, one girl in a lime green gown became suddenly petrified. “I wanna go home,” she cried. “I’m scared.”

But Juan Ramirez, who knows the girl from Best Buddies, reached over and held her hand.

“You’ll get to dance with a lot of cute boys and nice girls,” said classmate Iona Weissman, who runs the school’s Best Buddies chapter. The girl became calm as quickly as she became tearful.

The students arrived at Jungle Island’s ballroom in school buses and fancy white limos. Some boys wore tuxedos or suits, though one showed up in overalls, befitting the party’s Western theme.

Girls wore flowing sequined gowns and strapless dresses in every color of the rainbow. Some clicked across the dance floor in high heels; others, with fragile feet and unsteady gaits, wore sneakers.

Some attended in wheelchairs.

On the dance floor, a tall boy in a pink shirt jumped up and down, oblivious to the beat. Another, in a red bandana and a straw hat danced arm-in-arm with his teacher. A small girl with Down syndrome sang along as a hit song by Pitbull thump-thump-thumped in the background: “I just want to feel this moment.” Another boy blew bubbles.

And if they didn’t keep to the beat on the dance floor, no one snickered.

“You know what?” asked Krop’s Manny Quiroga, who oversees vocational programs, “these kids don’t care.”

Quiroga helped raise money for limos, corsages and the formal wear by selling bagels at school early in the morning.

Thursday was Ana Sevilla of Krop’s first prom. “It’s very nice,” she said, as she nibbling on strawberries. “I want to come here next year.”

By the afternoon, Amanda Lambert – her hair now a little wilder, her pink dress a bit wrinkled – slipped back into a limo after more than four hours of dancing. She had been up since before 6 a.m., styling her hair with her mom, fighting the excitement.

“I think it’s really nice being prom queen,” she said. “I’m going to wear this crown tomorrow to school.”

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