Originally published in Salt Lake Tribune – April 29, 2018
For many Americans, Prom night brings back memories of starched collars, gallons of hairspray and that breathless moment of seeing a date for the first time in their best duds.
But for students in Utah’s virtual schools, who connect and learn online during the school year, prom might mean seeing dates, classmates and teachers for the first time – ever.
Three virtual charter schools, Utah Virtual Academy, Utah Connections Academy and Mountain Heights Academy, co-hosted a prom Friday for their students to get a shot at the teenage tradition usually associated with brick-and-mortar schools.
The virtual prom had all the right flavors of a typical high school experience – a king and queen, the theme “A Night in Paris” and a snazzy venue at the Utah Capitol.
Still, some students traveled from remote, rural corners of Utah, sometimes four to five hours away from Salt Lake City, to finally pair faces with the voices only heard during weekly class conference calls or with names seen in a chat window.
Junior AJ Heath has been to the “virtual” prom before and said the dancing and partying are exactly as he expects they would be at a public high school. This year, his mom fashioned him a boutonniere and matching corsage for his date, with rosebuds and sprigs of baby’s breath.
Prom has also sprung some surprises on the 17-year-old, such as the time he first met a teacher he had only seen through his computer screen.
“She was a little shorter than me,” Heath said.
Brittney Wanlass, a lead teacher at Utah Virtual Academy, has worked for several years to help organize the annual prom. While she is a firm believer in the virtual schooling model, having that social aspect for teens is still valuable for the education process, she said.
“We get more out of the students when they feel like they’ve become a part of something,” Wanlass said. “We try to find ways we can build this relationship throughout the school year. We’re able to get more out of the students when they see it’s just not a name in the computer.”
Twins Maddie and McKenzie Horrocks knew classmates might have a hard time telling them apart when the big event arrived Friday night. After all, they did pick out the same dress.
So the 18-year-olds dyed their hair different colors, just to give their classmates a little help in telling them apart when they finally met.
That shaky experience of trying to keep names straight is not foreign to the sisters either.
“Sometimes it’s fun to see them because you don’t know what they look like in person,” McKenzie Horrocks said. “You try to match their voices with what they look like.”
To learn more about Utah Virtual Academy, visit https://utva.k12.com/.