Wednesday, May 14, 2008

High school students penny-pinching for prom

Seniors at Wheaton and Kennedy say economy has forced more frugal festivities

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If on Friday night Wheaton is noticeably void of stretch Hummers or extravagant, wedding-caliber gowns, it doesn’t mean Wheaton and John F. Kennedy high schools have canceled prom — they’re just saving money.

With costs rising and the effects of an economic downturn taking its toll, students are finding frugal ways to celebrate senior year’s big night.

Kate Zimmerman, senior class president at Kennedy, lowered planning costs from previous years in order to keep prom tickets, which went on sale this week, at $45 a person. She said this year’s venue, the University of Maryland Alumni Center, only costs $3,000 and students will be offered hors d’oeuvres as opposed to a full dinner because many go out to eat before prom.

This allowed more money to be spent on decorating the room, Zimmerman said, and kept costs down.

‘‘None of us want to be wasteful and have things we don’t need,” she said, adding that she found a dress for $120 and would be going out for burgers and salads with a group of couples before the dance to lower her own costs.

Prom tickets at Wheaton are up to $65 this year. The prom will be at the Hilton on Rockville Pike, a venue used in past years that gave the school a discount this year said Kimberly Taylor, Wheaton’s senior class president. Past complaints about the prom’s music prompted Taylor to hire a disc jockey from Hot 99.5 in Washington D.C. That move forced an increase in ticket prices.

‘‘We wanted to get something that was nice but at the same time was affordable,” said Taylor, who bought a designer knock-off dress for $40 at a discount store and will share a limo with a group of eight friends to lower her own prom expenses.

Expected attendance at Wheaton’s prom is down this year with only 235 tickets sold as of Tuesday, as opposed to about 300 in past years, senior class advisor Elizabeth Hellman said. Principal Kevin Lowndes attributes the low number to a small senior class — 268 students — and the difficult financial situation some are finding themselves in this year.

‘‘I thought the prom was kind of immune to the economy, because it’s a rite for seniors,” Lowndes said, adding the school extended ticket sales all the way up to Friday’s prom to increase interest. ‘‘So I am surprised about the number of kids that are coming.”

While it’s too early to determine Kennedy’s prom attendance, Zimmerman said she heard many people were excited to go, but others were apprehensive about the costs. Rebecca Rother, a Kennedy senior and the Student Government Association president, said she bought a dress two months ago to save money and will be taking prom pictures at Brookside Gardens, which is free.

Rother estimated that with a dress, jewelry, shoes and other accessories, some girls will spend between $300 and $400.

Saint Anthony’s Bridal, a Rockville-based nonprofit, gave away free prom dresses, shoes, hair dressing and jewelry to Washington, D.C.- area students May 4 at the Hilton in Silver Spring as a way to make prom more affordable for low-income high school students. The first-year program, called Ciao Bella, distributed about 50 dresses to Montgomery County students and more than 250 in total, according to its assistant director Helen Robinson.

‘‘This is an untapped market where we look at people as needy, but we don’t think of people needing a prom dress,” Robinson said of the dresses, which were donated by local stores and residents.

In terms of transportation, Reliable Limousine in Silver Spring has had the typical number of rental requests but students are opting for larger, less expensive ‘‘party buses” over limos, said Kendra Weikel, a customer service representative. Due to the economy, a long-standing eight-hour minimum for rentals was reduced to six hours to lower costs for students this year, but a fuel surcharge has been raised from 10 to 15 percent for prom season to combat gas prices.

‘‘This year, the kids all want large groups going to the prom together,” Weikel said of the preference for party buses. ‘‘You don’t have one couple or two [renting], it’s 10 to 14 kids traveling together.”

Another way for students to spend less money on prom is to attend the post-prom party rather than rent hotel rooms or hold expensive parties, both Zimmerman and Rother said. At Kennedy and Wheaton, admission to the post-prom is free for those who attended prom. Both offer free food and the opportunity to win prizes and cash.

At Wheaton, the post-prom planning committee was about $1,000 short of the $4,000 budget as of Tuesday, said Booster Club President Teresa Taylor, Kimberly’s mother. Donations have been scarce, but Taylor said there will be no repeat of 2005, when the post-prom was canceled due to insufficient funds.

‘‘I’m trying [to raise money],” she said, adding that if the budget is not met, they will look to concessions from an upcoming regional track meet the school is hosting to make up the cost. ‘‘I’m asking parents, but they keep saying they are getting hit hard at the end of the year.”

Kennedy will spend more money on the post-prom party this year than past years, but it still has one of the lowest budgets in the county, said Mark Rother, president of Kennedy’s PTSA and Rebecca’s father.

‘‘In the past, we always had kids come but they got bored and left,” Rother said of the increased expenses. ‘‘[This year] we want to get more to stay.”