With 50 pounds of ostrich feathers, dozens of ping-pong balls, lots of gold glitter, gallons of donated black paint and a big dose of school spirit, Asheville High School hosted its annual prom at the school last night, May 16, for the first time since (as best anyone can remember, anyway) 1979 or so. They’d held last year’s prom at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel downtown, a few miles from the school, but last fall, then-new Principal Joyce Best told students and the parent-teacher organization that AHS needed to “change this up.”
The off-site approach meant that prom tickets had risen over the years to $75 per student, said Best as she helped host an afternoon Open House a few hours before the event started. Parents were dropping by to check out the decorations, ask questions and see what the kids and teachers had done to create their Great Gatsby Prom event. Few students were present. “Some of them were here before 8 a.m., working to get everything ready,” Best explained. “They’re busy getting ready now.”
To the ticket cost, add prom attire from tuxedos to carnations, “promposals,” dinner and transportation, and it’s no surprise that Visa Inc. estimated that the average cost of attending prom in America this year is more than $900 per family.
Last year, said Best, just 100 students attended the AHS prom, in part because of that high cost. By holding the event at the school, with teachers and students doing the planning and decoration, the school was able to drop the ticket price to $35. The students’ participation in almost every aspect of prom — from the glitter in the gold letters on the signs, to the water fountains the football team helped set up, to the ping-pong balls used by woodworking students as part of a lighting display — also helped spark a big increase in participation: More than 400 had signed up to attend, Best said.
“In the beginning, we had to sell it,” said ceramics teacher Natalie Davis. Students, parents and teachers alike were a little uncertain about moving the event back to the school. A key turning point in attitudes came when art students produced the printed invitations — gold lettering on black, a classy, personal approach, said Davis. It helped, too, that in almost every aspect of the event, the students worked practically every Saturday since spring break to plan, build and decorate.
Asheville School Board member Shaunda Sandford nodded her approval as she toured the cafeteria, decked out like a scene from the most recent The Great Gatsby movie with Leonard DiCaprio. White fabric and lights draped from beam to beam in the ceiling. White beads draped and dangled over the cafeteria light fixtures, giving them the look of fancy chandeliers. Black signs with glittering gold letters boasted messages from the literary (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice”) to the playful (“You look oh-so-pretty, now get out and dance!” in the girl’s bathroom). Ostrich feathers decorated every table. The dance floor featured a large “2015 Prom” display, the glowing letters, on close inspection, ping-pong balls with LED lights inside.
“This is nicer than the prom I had!” said Sandford, an Asheville High graduate. The all-local prom, with active buy-in from students and a lower ticket price, “gives all [AHS] kids a chance to attend,” she said.
Science teacher Sarah Duffer noted that the students picked the Gatsby theme, which dovetails perfectly with the school’s (and Asheville’s) art deco architecture. And she boasted about all “the in-house talent” the event showcases: “Our culinary arts students and teacher are making food, [the] woodshop has created props, the art department has decorated signs, our graphics department has screen-printed invitations and tickets,” she said.
The only outside costs were for renting a big white tent and gold-trimmed chairs, said Best. Noting many ways to give students positive encouragement, she added, “This is just another way to showcase what our students can do.”