A prom to cherish

Students from A. Harry Moore disability program get into the swing

For students from A. Harry Moore School, the prom is the highlight of the school year.
For students from A. Harry Moore School, the prom is the highlight of the school year.

Ashante, sitting in her wheelchair, tilts her head to hear the music coming from the ballroom at the Chandelier restaurant in Bayonne.

Although she doesn’t graduate from the A. Harry Moore School program for another two years, she comes to the annual ball each year, and votes for prom king and queen. This is a ritual that has gone on for as long as any of the students can remember.

This year Ashante is on the ballot. All the attendees vote. Some of those who come have already graduated.

“I like the music and I like the food,” Ashante says. She wears a dress with a large flower pattern. All the attendees are dressed in their best. Some are in wheelchairs, others use crutches, while some walk on their own or with the help of sponsors or nurses.

“We are a school for children with multiple disabilities,” said Tracy Nimon, a teacher at the A. Harry Moore school in Jersey City.

Everybody grins as they pose for official pictures near the door.

The annual prom is the most anticipated night of the year for students, alumni, teachers, and sponsors, a special event in which everybody gets to kick back and have fun. Many take to the dance floor, in wheelchairs or on crutches, in rhythm to the funky tunes the DJ spins.

Erika Buitrago, who wears many hats at the school as well as Hudson County’s Special Olympics, has been organizing these proms for more than 25 years.

A storied past

The A. Harry Moore Laboratory School was opened in 1931, one of the first such schools in Hudson County. It offers comprehensive academic, therapeutic, pre-vocational, and social programs to students between the ages of three and 21. The students are classified Preschool Disabled, Learning and Language Disabled, and Multiple Disabled. This year there are 110 students in the program

In 1963, Jersey City State College assumed control of A. Harry Moore School from the Jersey City School District and designated it as the college’s demonstration school.  The special education department of the college was already nationally recognized. Because of the partnership between A. Harry Moore and the college, college students could earn a B.A. in special education, leading to a Teacher of the Handicapped Certification.  The close association between the partners resulted in housing the college’s Department of Special Education in the AHM building.  This provided a real-time learning laboratory for college students, giving them the opportunity to collaborate with—and learn from—the faculty working directly with students with multiple disabilities.

Under the direction of the College of Education of what is now New Jersey City University, the Laboratory School within the NJCU community promotes student participation in many cultural and educational activities. The school’s unique history as a demonstration school has allowed it to serve students with multiple physical, medical, and cognitive disabilities.

A resource for the district

The Child Study Team of the local school district refers students to A. Harry Moore. An intake interview is held to assure that each student’s needs in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be addressed.

“The school program is about providing training and education, trying to help our students transition into the world,” Buitargo said.

Last year WPIX TV awarded the school $10,000 as part of its Fuel My School program. This money supports therapy and other aspects of the program.

While the program does get students from elsewhere in the state, most of those who attend the program are from Jersey City.

Back on the dance floor

While the school holds a graduating ceremony each year (this year on June 21,) the prom has always been the premier event.

“We used to hold the prom at Casino in the Park,” Buitrago said. “But when that closed, we wanted to keep in in the area. We did not want our students having to travel far.”

For a number of students, this is their first prom. But many of them have been here before and will continue to come back each year to celebrate with current students. Amir and Tyrone, for example, have already graduated, but they came back.

The students are accompanied by family members or other caregivers. The event is capped by the royal crowning of king; prince; first, second and third Royal Knight; queen, princess, and duchess.

“This is the big social event of the season and features a red carpet,” Buitrago said.

The students vote on the color scheme each year, although not everybody chooses to wear those colors. One family arrived dressed completely in green. Richard wore a lavender suit and tie. He came to the prom with his nurse, who accompanied him to school every day. Dante was dressed like a Wall Street broker.

Students enter, hug each other, pose for photos, and gradually make their way to the main room where a DJ spins hot contemporary tunes that everybody seems to know.

“The school focuses a lot on movement,” Buitrago said. “We try to give as many fun activities as possible.”

Many  students are familiar with this part of Bayonne since they come to the bowling alley next door. Some are part of the Special Olympics, which holds events throughout the county

This is their night, and they know it.  Said Buitago, “They talk about it all year.”

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com