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Home-schoolers don't miss out on prom

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DALLAS -- The day Michelle Zeledon's parents informed her they would begin home schooling, she thought her life was over.

"What about homecoming?" she asked. "And prom? What about everything that makes high school high school?"

Zeledon, 17, of Arlington, Texas, certainly did not picture herself at a downtown Dallas hotel Saturday night, wearing a long, plum-colored dress, her hair swept up, ready to spend the night dancing at her prom.

"I will admit I was not happy. I worried I would miss out and just sit at home all the time," said Zeledon, who began home schooling more than a year ago. "But that didn't happen."

This is prom season, when teenage girls spend hundreds of dollars on dresses and boys rent tuxedos, when groups of friends pile into limousines, then dance well into the next morning.

And for the growing number of children who are schooled at home -- 300,000 in Texas alone -- attending the prom is one rite of passage they are unwilling to give up.

"Home-schooled kids want prom for the same reasons that high school kids want one," said Paul Hastings, assistant to the president of the Lubbock-based Texas Home School Coalition. "It's fun. They want to be with their friends. They want a night to remember."

So as parents have increasingly sought some of the quintessential "high school" experiences to give their home-schooled children, proms for these teenagers have popped up across the country.

The largest of those is in northern Texas. On Saturday night, more than 1,000 teenagers ages 14 to 19 streamed into a downtown Dallas hotel's ballroom, which was decorated to look like an ancient castle.

Some differences do exist between high school and home-school proms.

Quotes from Scripture are sprinkled throughout the room, and a prayer precedes dinner. No king or queen is crowned.

And the dress code is a tad more strict. For girls, long dresses are encouraged but not required. Seamstresses are available for last-minute alterations, and any plunging necklines are covered with strategically placed fabric. For boys, tuxedos or dress suits with ties are required; no T-shirts, sports coats or tennis shoes allowed.

But in just about every other way, home-school prom is just like any other prom, minus the high school. Proud parents still snap too many photos. Girls still cluster in big groups and gush over one another's dresses, and boys still fumble nervously with corsages. "There's a definite stereotype that we school at home in our pajamas," said Meredith Stowe, 18, who lives in Bedford, Texas, and has been home-schooled her entire life. "That could not be further from the truth."

Her friend, Scout Harrell, 18, a home-schooled senior from Arlington, added, "People are always surprised to hear we have prom."

North Texas' home-school prom began 13 years ago as a gift from some parents to their daughters, said Bliss Herron of Fort Worth, one of the organizers and a mother of nine who home schools. The first year drew about 200 teenagers.

Before the prom, students take dance lessons and learn to waltz, swing and cha-cha.

"We want prom to be a fun, memorable night, but we also want our children to learn about dance and tradition and history," Herron said. "We are always looking for ways to teach them." Celesa and Guy Spencer, of Alvarado, Texas, home-school their two children, 14 and 15, so they can instill their Christian faith and values. That does not mean their children sit at home all day.

In fact, parents who home school laugh at the idea that their children lack adequate socialization. Home-schoolers regularly gather for group lessons and art classes, field trips to museums, art galleries and plays.

"We want our kids to have access to everything kids in public school have," Guy Spencer said. "And prom is a big deal in high school."

Jordan Thomas, 19, is not home-schooled but attended the prom with a date who is, which is permitted. Thomas attended private school and used to feel sorry for her friends who were home-schooled.

"I always felt so bad for them," said Thomas, of Bedford. "Poor home-schooled kids don't get to do anything. I thought they suffered. Clearly, I was wrong."

Her friend, Michael Pandolfo, 17, who lives in Fort Worth and is home-schooled, joked, "We do have very jubilant dances."

This prom offered no extravagant after-party, but many prom-goers planned to hang out at the hotel (with chaperones, of course), go swimming or share early morning omelets and pancakes at IHOP.

"We'll probably be up until 5 or 6 in the morning," Zeledon said. "We'll just see what happens. Who knows? This is prom."


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