Prom can be one of the most important moments of a student’s time in high school – but at this West Philadelphia school for young people with cerebral palsy, the 2021 prom carries special significance.
The HMS school at 44th and Baltimore Avenue hosted a virtual prom for its students, all of whom have cerebral palsy or other neurological disabilities, on May 21. About 100 students, parents, teachers, and alumni gathered via Zoom to celebrate the end of one of the most challenging school years in HMS’s 138-year history. It was the school’s second virtual prom in as many years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the students and staff tuned into the prom dressed up in gowns and tuxes, while others put up dance-themed Zoom filters. They danced to pop music that has become school-dance staples – including Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A,” Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” Pharrell’s “Happy,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” – as well as older classics like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway,” and the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” And in the middle of the ceremony, organizers played a video honoring students, staff, and alumni for their accomplishments.
Among the honored alumni was Anthony Casillas. An HMS staff member and a DJ, Casillas, also known to his colleagues and students as DJ Ant, emceed the prom and put together the night’s playlist. Casillas kept the students energized throughout the night, punctuating songs with his electric enthusiasm. He said that it was exciting to see his students able to have fun after they overcame all the challenges of the last year.
“I take that opportunity [to DJ the prom] to bring more joy, in a way, to have the passion that’s in me and bring it out in other people,” Casillas said.
As a staff member, Casillas takes on “every aspect of the job,” from teaching the curriculum, to helping provide different kinds of physical therapy – with Casillas being someone who can relate to HMS students and their experiences with cerebral palsy, which he has as well. He also hosts his own YouTube podcast, The Matt and Ant Show,which has featured famous retired sports stars, including NFL running back and Super Bowl XXV MVP Ottis Anderson, Flyers winger Brian Propp, and Eagles tight end Chad Lewis.
Casillas said that teaching, making his podcast, and especially working as a DJ at events like HMS prom, allow him to welcome people into a positive, welcoming community.
“I started [working as a DJ] at a very young age and I have a passion for music, I love how it made me feel, I love how it made other people feel,” Casillas said.“I realized how much I really enjoy it, how much I bring people together.”
The 2021 prom comes after a school year in which HMS, like schools across the country, held classes online due to COVID-19. Staff and administrators had to rush to devise a virtual curriculum and ensure that their students had whatever specialized computer interface they needed for online learning.
In April, the school opened for partial in-person learning, with half of the students able to come in the building on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half on Thursday and Friday. And with 94% of staff vaccinated, including all of the teaching and therapeutic staff, HMS will be opening up sooner. HMS President Tom Quinn told the University City Review and Philadelphia Free Press that the school would be teaching in-person full time during its extended-school-year summer session, which runs fromJune 30 to Aug. 6.
“It’s not the end of this,” Quinn said. “But I think we feel pretty good about next year’s prom being in person, and this [year’s prom] being close to a kind of a culmination to these kinds of types of virtual events that we’ve had to figure out.”
The theme of the prom was “Night of 1,000 Lights.” Students adorned themselves with multi-colored lights and glow sticks sent from the school, creating an array of faces illuminated across the Zoom screen. Casillas said that the theme communicates the mix of passion that HMS students felt throughout their time in school. He added that the lights symbolized how prom can brighten students’ year, while giving them an outlet to express themselves.
“From a student perspective, I think that it shows that it’s a great night to have fun, and you can use those lights in so many different ways,” Casillas said. “’Night of 1,000 Lights’ can mean a lot of different things.”
HMS students and alumni expressed excitement about attending prom for weeks, with the HMS Facebook page documenting the anticipation leading up to the dance. One post shows a student asking another to be her prom date in a moving prom-proposal, or ‘prom-posal.’ (The student she asks says yes.) And Quinn noted that he was told by one recent HMS graduate that she had been waiting all year to get back in touch with the HMS community.
“It really has become a tradition for a long time now to really celebrate the year, celebrate the community,” Quinn said. “For a lot of our alumni, [prom] is really their touchstone for us, yearly to come back for that, and for us to see how they’re doing and to connect with them.”
“It was really neat to see that community we worked so hard to create,” Quinn added “And it wasn’t about [being in] the building, it was really about the connection we were able to make with the kids and with the families.”
Quinn said that celebrations and ceremonies like prom were important – especially for his students, many of whom have attended HMS for 15 years, and have had to overcome so many challenges over the past year because of the pandemic.
“The ritual of [prom], given what we’ve all been through, is really important,” Quinn said. “Our kids have gotten a raw deal, and if there’s some way to get us closer to getting back to quote-on-quote normal and still being able to honor them and give them that sense of closure about their experience, we’re excited to be able to do that.”
Casillas also said that making prom night special was something deeply important to both his students and him personally.
“For me it means the world,” Casillas said. “To know that you can make somebody happy from them having one good night.”