Hair spray, Cinderella dresses and sleepless nights of anticipation mark prom at CPS special needs high school

“This is the motivator for positive behavior for the whole year so students can get to prom,” Northside Learning Center High School Assistant Principal Elizabeth Mourtokokis said.

SHARE Hair spray, Cinderella dresses and sleepless nights of anticipation mark prom at CPS special needs high school
Luis Vazquez, 22, and his prom date, Anjele Paigelethe, 20, pose for photographs before Northside Learning Center High School’s prom.

Luis Vazquez, 22, and his prom date, Anjele Paigelethe, 20, pose for photographs before Northside Learning Center High School’s prom.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Lanaudia Holder, tiara atop a fresh do, practiced her queen’s wave. Hand vertical, slight twist from the wrist.

“This is my date,” she beamed, squeezing the arm of Dartanyun Griggs, who donned a tuxedo and pink bow tie.

It was prom.

And the pair stood peacefully in a chaotic hallway of Northside Learning Center High School as classmates, ranging in age from 14 to 22, all with significant intellectual disabilities, got spiffed up before boarding a bus to a nearby banquet center.

Hair spray filled the air as a small army of volunteers did hair and makeup.

“I’m wearing this dress because it looks like Cinderella,” Joann Wienmann, 18, said from behind a mess of hair awaiting a straightening iron.

Northside Learning Center student Joann Wienmann, 18, gets her hair done before prom.

Northside Learning Center student Joann Wienmann, 18, gets her hair done before prom.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

All of the school’s 269 students get to go to prom. Dates were not required, but many mustered the courage to ask.

Luis Vazquez, 22, waited till the last minute. He huddled with a teacher before walking up to Anjele Paigelethe, 20. She said yes.

Vazquez promptly walked back to the teacher and gave him a high-five.

“This is the motivator for positive behavior for the whole year so students can get to prom,” Assistant Principal Elizabeth Mourtokokis said.

The event was on hold during the pandemic, so the excitement this year was multiplied, she said.

All students at Northside, 3730 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., have mild to severe intellectual disabilities or autism and nearly half speak with the assistance of an electronic aide or use sign language, Mourtokokis said.

The school, which is part of Chicago Public Schools, teaches students life skills to prepare them to live as independently as possible.

“Half of our curriculum takes place in the community,” Mourtokokis said. “We have over 65 partners in and around Chicago, and our students travel to those businesses, those organizations, so they can show those workers and managers and supervisors that they can do that job, they can be employed, they can be vital members of the community.”

Milek Williams, 21, is hopeful for job opportunities at a grocery store or warehouse.

He didn’t sleep the night before prom.

“I was too excited. I’m looking forward to walking down the aisle with my prom date and being announced and all my classmates and teachers cheering for me,” he said.

For Yaritzel Zavala, 22, the day was a tad bittersweet.

“This is really emotional for me because it will be the last day I will be here at this school,” she said. “We get to be in our comfort zone here. Everybody in this whole school, we consider each other family. And we have to support each other as we grow up.”

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