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One-of-A-Kind Prom: Special Center Provides Singular Prom Night Experience for Nebraska Students

Jun 06, 2022 03:15PM ● By Liz McCue | Flatwater Free Press

Photos by Liz McCue | Flatwater Free Press

NEBRASKA CITY – For his final prom before graduation, Seth Kadlec has pulled out all the stops. His tuxedo coat has tails. His vest and bow-tie shimmer in deep burgundy satin. He’s a candidate for prom king, after all. 

He now makes a grand entrance in front of classmates, peers and parents, arm-in-arm with a senior in a festive silver-sequined dress. As his name is called, they walk together underneath an inflated archway in front of the gym doors that reads “PROM 2022.” The room sparkles with tiny string lights — the theme is “Under the Stars” — and dances with shadows cast by the DJ’s strobes.

It’s prom exactly as you remember it. Except the students vying for king and queen don’t go to the same school. And the guests here hail from all over southeast Nebraska. 

This is the special prom held by the Nebraska Center for the Education of Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired.  A prom for teenagers who are visually impaired, teens who are hearing impaired, autistic teens, teens with mobility impairments.

Students who have benefitted from this one-of-a-kind school’s services or from special education programs attend, get dressed up and dance.

Seth’s an old pro. This is his fifth prom, and his seventh year attending school at the center, which is based in Nebraska City and offers programs on a small campus on the northeast side of town. Seth, who grew up in David City, was one of three graduates from the center this May. 

Even the fifth time, prom night stands out.

“I thought this day and night was awesome,” he said. 

The 2022 prom, held April 21, drew 34 students from across the state, with family members, guardians and teachers in tow. 

The school hosting this prom, and the work it does with students, is singular in the state of Nebraska. 

The Nebraska Center for the Education of Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired has specialized staff who teach skills to students from infancy through age 21. Students learn to read Braille, use a cane for mobility and master skills like emptying a dishwasher or cleaning a room.

Students may come to the campus in Nebraska City for a short term, or attend for years before transitioning to their local schools. 

“We serve over 800 students in Nebraska, and the majority of those students are in public schools,” said Sally Schreiner, the school’s campus administrator. 

This prom actually started as a simple social skills workshop nearly 30 years ago, in the basement of a bank in nearby Auburn. 

Schreiner, who is retiring July 1, was there, serving as a transition specialist, helping students aging out of education programs shift into more independent living. She was also serving on the board of what was then the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped.

Photos by Liz McCue | Flatwater Free Press

 

She realized that parents wanted more opportunities for their children to build friendships with peers outside their small towns. 

She started making connections between students who lived in different school districts. The value of those in-person interactions hasn’t changed, even as more parents and students find communities online. 

“You know, we’ve come a long way in special education, that the students we serve are included in so much more than what they used to be when we started 30 years ago. But they still like those opportunities to get together,” Schreiner said. 

Over the years, the social skills workshop evolved into an overnight stay followed by field trips to stores in Nebraska City the next morning to test skills learned the previous day. Students learned about trying on clothes and how to navigate a bank. 

“And so then it turned into, ‘hey, why don’t we have a dance?’ Then it turned into, ‘hey, let’s make this bigger than just a dance. Let’s make it a full-fledged spring prom,’” Schreiner said. 

Now, students arrive in the afternoon for a skills workshop, hosted this year by the Nebraska City High School speech team. 

After the workshop, they get ready in the center’s dorms before joining classmates, teachers and family in the cafeteria for dinner. Students from Nebraska City and Peru State College help students get dressed, fix their hair and makeup and serve the meal. 

Then: karaoke. Seth beelines for the karaoke machine after getting dressed.

Singing is one of his favorite things, next to announcing basketball games at several area schools. He sings bass in three choirs, including one at this special school.

“I like the old-time country music,” he said. The upbeat songs. 

“Usually when you think of dancing, you think of upbeat music, don’t you?” Seth said.

After dinner, students split into groups to ride in a party bus.

The bus has colorful lights and music to accompany riders on a trek around Nebraska City. It quickly grows festive as students let loose to Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

Photos by Liz McCue | Flatwater Free Press

Sam Wright, a sophomore in Nebraska City, is carried up the stairs of the bus. Born with cerebral palsy, he sits between two paraeducators, singing, dancing and laughing with several classmates sitting nearby. 

Sam has already tackled one of the more stressful endeavors of prom — asking a girl to dance with him. 

“I was literally having a panic attack,” Sam said, gesturing with both hands for emphasis. 

He’s gone to other dances, but this was his first prom. The stakes felt a little higher. 

He passed a note to Nebraska City senior Katie Schreiter during lunch. She checked yes. 

“It’s a great opportunity for these kids,” said Mary Wright, Sam’s mother. 

She and her husband, Bryan, arrive with other parents to support their children and friends just before the 8 p.m. crowning of prom king and queen. Parents are encouraged to not show up before then, to give the students time to have independence on the dance floor. 

“As a parent, it’s hard to let them experience these things sometimes,” Wright said. Parents often worry about other students being unaccepting of students with special needs, she said. 

Sam said he’s always felt accepted by his peers at his Nebraska City high school. But it’s nice to have those feelings confirmed. Katie, and a fellow senior, Kendyl Schmidt, end up dancing with Sam and his classmate, senior Bryce Maddox, long into the night.

Once off the party bus, students are directed to the wide-open gym doors. The smoky sunlight of Nebraska disappears into darkness peppered by string lights and decorative evergreens.

A DJ is already going, strobe lights flashing to the beat. The dance floor is busy. Everyone crams on for the “Cha Cha Slide.” The song is so popular the DJ plays it twice.  

Seth doesn’t get the crown, but that doesn’t bother him. He cheers for Bryce and for Auburn Public Schools sophomore Sarah Warren, crowned king and queen. 

“I thought it was awesome. I thought what was awesome was getting the sash,” Seth said, gesturing to the white sash that reads ‘Prom Court.’ 

As the hours pass, students leave as they get tired, exiting to one of the final events before departing in the morning. 

It’s a sleepover. Because the school has dorms on its campus, students stay overnight with their friends. It’s a rite of passage they often hear about from movies and peers but can’t often experience. 

“It’s no different for our students than it is any other student who goes to prom,” Schreiner said. “It’s a night to feel special, and dress up and have fun with your friends…That’s what we really try to do, just make it a special night.” 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.