Senior prom brings good times but can be expensive

On March 20, Kailua High School students have the chance to attend their senior prom – n

Students dance new wave punk. Girls sport trendy bubble-style dresses. Boys suit up in formal tuxes. Teen couples exchange layers of maile lei. These are the memories that Kehau Agena cherishes from her Kamehameha Schools prom in 1991.

Today, Agena teaches media arts at Kailua High School, where she is delighted to see her seniors attend their big dance.

“I think it is a nice bonding experience … my classmates and I still talk about it,” Agena said.

On March 20, Kailua High School has its senior prom. But aside from the wellspring of fond memories it generates, the event can come with unforgettable costs.

A ticket to the Kailua prom is $70, an approximate 20 percent hike over the last 20 years. While that may sound like a modest increase, most seniors are paying for college application fees that cost $50 to $80 a piece. Acceptance letters come in early spring but are sometimes tempered with questions of how families will pay for tuition. All of this can put the price of a one-night prom into the realm of the impractical when compared to what’s at stake with a potentially pricey college education.

Many Kailua High School students do not come from affluent households. More than 42 percent of the high school’s population receives free or reduced lunch, meaning the students’ families are at or below the poverty line.

Ticket aside, prom also comes with hidden costs such as that age-old question: what to wear? For boys, the answer is a tux, if not the conventional black then uniquely colored, which sometimes commands a higher price for rental. Girls want that special dress in step with the trends. Last year that was sequins and strapless tops. It’s anyone’s guess what it will be this year, but the new look may not be the cheapest. 

It’s also popular for couples to have matching outfits. Last year, the color scheme was maroon and navy blue. Some students compete to “personalize their party wear” with special creative touches that dig even deeper into wallets.

Prom preparation requires not only money but time that takes students away from part-time jobs and studying so they can search the mall for fashion-forward pizzazz. This raises the possibility that many girls may select the same dress. Not exactly a life-impacting occurrence but a bit of an embarrassment.

To help, Calista’s, a women’s clothing store on O‘ahu, as well as other shops have created systems to keep track of the type of dress purchased by each student and each school. But again, the search for originality is another add-on to the event ticket. 

Before closing the wallet, anticipate shelling out more money for hair, makeup and nails—and, of course, the lei. Total it all up, and it is estimated now that the average student spends at least $450 for prom.

The price tag is a serious concern for prom faculty advisor Sheri Hanoa, who believes the way to keep costs down is to involve students on the event planning committee.

The search for an affordable and agreeable venue is intense.The committee inspects at least three sites.

“It is great. The kids (on the committee) get to go look at several hotels and make a decision based on what they have seen,” Hanoa said.

But the reality remains that prom costs, and this is especially so given that the venue of choice for Kailua High School prom goers is Waikīkī, although Hanoa said that the committee does look at reasonably priced hotels that give “the biggest bang for our bucks.”

According to Agena, about 70 percent of the ticket price goes toward  the venue and food. The remaining 30 percent is for decorations, music, entertainment and security.

And here in Hawai‘i, it would not be a memorable party without memorable food, which is why dinner is included in the price of the Kailua High School prom as opposed to prom setups on the continental U.S that do not offer such amenities.

But the formal sit-down dinner has educational value as it gives students a chance to practice manners.

While many students have known each other all their lives, the prom meal often marks their first-ever sharing of formalities at the dinner table.

“We know everybody down here, and we usually know everybody’s dates,” Agena said. “Very rarely do we not know somebody. So even though it is a giant party, it is very family-like, and so this unique experience brings everyone together.”

Although the price can remain a stumbling block, many people work behind the scenes to get students to prom.

Hanoa said that fellow teacher Clint Medeiros once helped to push cookie fundraising to cover the cost of three students’ prom tickets.

Throughout all her years at Kailua High School, Hanoa said she always had one longing.

“I wish for more students to go (to prom),” she said.

For those students who attend the Kailua High School senior prom, the experience can be memorable.

As Agena worked with students on the prom pages of the 2020 yearbook, she said to them, “So in 2040, you guys will go back to your yearbook and look at prom, saying `Remember that dress you wore, remember it was the same dress as so and so, remember when she was going out with so and so….’”

by Kiana Ching, Special to Ka ‘Ohana