February 20, 2010 by JSOnline — Over the years, teachers have taken a beating. They’ve been blamed for the achievement gap, poor test scores and even the financial woes of the school district.

But if you’re looking for some teacher bashing in this column, move on. Nothing to see here. This is a story of above and beyond, of doing extra simply because this makes someone important happy.

Last week, more than 100 young people with special needs arrived at Washington High School in Milwaukee in tuxedos, suits and formal dresses – for a prom.

For more than 15 years, the Special Needs Prom – which invites students from all over the area for a special night – would not be possible if it weren’t for dozens of teachers and their volunteerism.

Remember your own prom? Perhaps everyone in your school felt welcome, but I’m betting that generally kids with special needs – those in wheelchairs and those with cognitive disabilities – can find such events daunting.

The idea here – a great one – is to simply make one night as special for them as proms are for most other students. And it happened at Washington High School on Feb. 12 for one reason – because of teachers, often maligned but not as often appreciated.

These teachers transformed Washington’s cafeteria into “Casino Night,” this year’s theme for the prom. They raised money for the event, found a sponsor to cater dinner and created and hung all the decorations and table ornaments.

And they did it for free – on their own time.

And don’t think they were just mere chaperones. Not at all. Some of the teachers even got out on the dance floor to learn the latest moves. Some of the teachers taught a few moves as well.

Stephanie O’Connor, a seventh-grade special education teacher at Audubon Technology & Communications Center Middle School, told me that her peers do what they do because they love children.

O’Connor acted like a schoolgirl herself after she saw two girls in the prom dresses she donated to them.

“She’s wearing the dress better than I did,” O’Connor told another teacher. “She looks so cute in it, and she was smart enough to wear a shawl over it. I wish I would have done the same thing.”

O’Connor experienced a major wardrobe malfunction when she wore the one-strap, black formal dress to her high school prom 12 years ago.

Let’s just say, she was doing the bunny-hop, and, well, you get the picture.

But there would be no wardrobe malfunctions on this night. Like proms that take place at high schools across the country, this prom crowned the class clown, the most likable and most outgoing.

It also featured students like 17-year-old Matthew Hanrahan, who is autistic. When Matthew arrived, he kept his hands in his pockets and stood near O’Connor, not wandering too far away.

As the music started to play and more students rushed to the dance floor, you could see Matthew’s confidence build. First, he walked on the dance floor, took his hands out of his pockets and tried a really quick dance move, which resembled something John Travolta did in “Saturday Night Fever.”

When no one seemed to notice, he tried another move, then another and yet another. And soon, he was busting all kinds of moves.

This was a huge step for Matthew, O’Connor told me. But that’s the best part about the Special Needs Prom: The children can just be themselves. The prom caters to the physical and mental challenges of these students.

We all know that children in school can be mean at times. But at this event, there were hugs and screeches from girls when they saw friends they have not seen in a year.

Teen girls ran out on the dance floor holding hands and tried to dance together, while the teen boys rapped with the music and performed various dances.

Ike Walters, 26, who graduated from Washington High School eight years ago, keeps coming back because he says it gives him a chance to see his old teachers and friends.

“I will never miss one of these,” Walters said as he danced to song after song. Walters, who is cognitively disabled, greeted his friends with a contagious smile as he strolled through the doors.

Mario Ogunbowale, 21, a 2007 Washington grad, told me that seeing his friends is the best part.

Ogunbowale said he has not missed a Special Needs Prom. That’s probably because his father, Gregory, is the principal of the school and is instrumental in keeping the event going.

Gregory Ogunbowale has been involved with the program for more than 12 years. He said it couldn’t happen without the teachers.

“Just look around,” he told me as he ate his prom dinner of smothered turkey, green beans and potatoes. “Every one of these teachers is here because they want to be. These are the stories that are rarely told.”

As Gregory Ogunbowale pointed out the dozen or so teachers by name, he described in detail what they did to keep the prom going.

The teachers prepare for the prom all year, but the real execution occurs two weeks prior to the event. Operating on a shoestring budget until this year – receiving a donation of $4,000 from the Milwaukee Foundation – the teachers do everything to keep the costs down and make sure the students’ special night goes on without a hitch. This involves everything from hiring a DJ from Running Rebels to blowing up the hundred or so balloons the event is remarkable.

The event can best be summed up when you look at the prom through the eyes of Lois Starms, a special education teacher for more than 16 years.

Starms brought her two grandchildren with her to the event, much like she used to bring her children until they got too big.

Her eyes started to water up as students she had not seen in a year came up to her to give her a hug and tell her how they have been doing.

Starms told me that the hugs and smiles make it worth all of the effort.

But it’s the teachers’ unfailing commitment that makes the night special for those most in need.

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