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. Just like the friends he had cheered on in the prom court before, he now makes a grand entrance in front of classmates, peers and parents, arm-in-arm with a senior in an equally festive silver-sequined dress.
As his name is called, they walk together under 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.
They line up with the rest of the prom court, just like potential kings and queens have done since the dawn of prom. But, unlike other proms, the students vying for king and queen here don’t all go to the same school. Unlike other proms, many of the guests don’t even attend the school hosting the dance and events.
Because this is the special prom held by the Nebraska Center for the Education of Children who are Blind or Visually Impaired.
Students who have benefitted from this one-of-a-kind school’s services can attend, get dressed up and dance no matter where they live. So can high school students in special education programs throughout southeast Nebraska.
Seth’s an old pro. This is his fifth time at prom, and his seventh year attending school at the center, which is based in Nebraska City and offers residential programs on a small campus on the northeast side of town. Seth has also attended East Butler Public Schools in Brainard, and grew up in David City. He was one of three graduates from the center this May.
But no matter how many times he’s attended, prom night always stands out.
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“I thought this day and night was awesome,” he said. “I would say, you’re gonna have a great time. And I would also say, prom is a fun time had by all.”
The 2022 prom, held April 21, drew 34 students from across the state, with family members, guardians, teachers and paraeducators also in tow. Not all of the students attending are blind or visually impaired. Some have mobility or hearing impairments. Others are autistic students.
Because prom wasn’t held for two years due to COVID-19, graduates from 2018 onward were invited back to celebrate.
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 who need more specific training, from infancy through age 21. The staff teach students to read Braille, use a cane for mobility and master everyday life skills, such as emptying a dishwasher or cleaning a room.
The center is part of Educational Service Unit 4, which serves southeast Nebraska students. Services provided by the Nebraska Center – which often goes by the acronym NCECBVI – are available statewide.
Students may come to the campus in Nebraska City for just a short term, said Sally Schreiner, the school’s campus administrator, or attend for several years to focus on certain skills before transitioning to their local school districts.
“We serve over 800 students in Nebraska, and the majority of those students are in public schools,” Schreiner said.
Those opportunities for specialized training are partly where the roots of the center’s annual prom originated.
It 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.
She realized that parents wanted more opportunities for their children to build friendships with peers outside their local communities. Her role allowed her to get to know the families and start 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.
Moving the event to the campus in Nebraska City offered a different experience for students to get together – and allowed new opportunities for community involvement. The decorations for this year’s theme, “Under the Stars,” were borrowed from Nebraska City High School. A local photographer set up a photo booth that students could pose in.
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 day before. Students learned about trying on clothes, how to find their size, how to navigate a bank and money management.
“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 his church choir in David City, where he’ll live in Region V Systems housing after graduation. He also sings in a choir with the Knights of Columbus and with other visually impaired students at the center.
“I like the old-time country music,” he said.
His go-to song is “Come Early Morning” by Don Williams. He also had a song request already picked out for the dance floor — “Tennessee River Run” by Darryl Wharley.
“Well, because it’s got a catchy tune to it. It’s nice,” Seth said. “Usually when you think of dancing, you think of upbeat music, don’t you?”
After dinner, the real party begins.
Students split into groups to ride in a party bus, a service that has been donated by Elite Party Buses for several years.
The bus has colorful lights and music to accompany riders on a short trek around Nebraska City. It quickly grows festive as students let loose and Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers come on the speakers.
The bus isn’t accessible for wheel- and motorized chairs, but that couldn’t stop Sam Wright from making sure he got aboard.
Sam, a sophomore in Nebraska City, was born with cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. One of the Nebraska City High paraeducators carries him up the stairs of the bus. He sits between two paras, which proves to be a good move when the bus hits a curb, jostling the trio. He sings, dances and laughs with several classmates sitting nearby.
Sam had already tackled one of the more stressful endeavors of prom earlier in the day — asking a girl to the 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 time attending prom and the stakes felt 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, came with other parents to support their children and friends before the crowning of prom king and queen at 8 p.m. 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 worry about trained staff available to help during the event. They worry about other students being unaccepting of students with special needs.
Sam said he’s always felt accepted by his peers at his high school in Nebraska City. But it certainly doesn’t make it any less exciting to have those feelings confirmed. Katie, and a fellow senior, Kendyl Schmidt, danced with Sam and his classmate, senior Bryce Maddox, long after students and parents began trickling out to dorm rooms or homes.
Katie and Kendyl are two of five students from Nebraska City High School’s leadership class who attended the prom as escorts for several members of the royalty court.
Once off the party bus, students are directed to the wide-open doors of the gym. The smoky sunlight of Nebraska disappears into darkness peppered by string lights on the walls, ceiling and decorative evergreens.
A DJ is already going, strobe lights flashing in time to the beat. The dance floor is busy, but everyone crams on for the “Cha Cha Slide.” The song is so popular that 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.’
There really isn’t an “end” to this prom. Students leave as they get tired, to one of the final events before leaving in the morning.
It’s a sleepover. Because the school has dorms on its campus, students stay overnight with their friends. It’s a young adult rite of passage they often hear about from movies and peers but can’t often experience off the campus.
“That’s what the kids really like,” Schreiner said. “It’s no different for our students than it is any other student who goes to prom. It’s a night to feel special, and dress up and have fun with your friends. And maybe get to meet new people. That’s what we really try to do, just make it a special night.”
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