Students dance and laugh at Strawberry Mansion High School's first Sneaker Ball. (Jaleem Huger/WHYY)

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Strawberry Mansion High School was set to close its doors to incoming classes in 2018, but due to pushback from the community, it remained open. This year is the first time a senior class will graduate since the attempted shutdown. 

This year is also the first for an all-new event called the Sneaker Ball. It was founded by Leslie Archer, a life skills teacher for students with intellectual disabilities. 

The idea is that attendees wear black tie attire — paired with casual shoes. Archer said she got the inspiration when she attended one herself last winter. “Everybody dressed up and put on whatever sneakers that they had, and I wanted my students to be able to do that as well.” 

She presented the idea to principal Brian McCracken, and received the go ahead. Then it was all hands on deck to make the dance a reality for the special needs students at Mansion. 

Local business The Dress Boutique signed on to donate some suits and gowns for the students, and Archer’s sorority sisters and family donated other suits, along with funds to help put on the event. Other life skills teachers donated their time to help decorate and chaperone. 

The final product took place on Friday, May 12. It was during the school day, so all students could attend.  Everyone dressed in their best attire, danced to tunes mixed by a DJ, got professional photos taken, and enjoyed a snack bar and a sit-down buffet lunch in the school’s main lobby. 

Senior Saini Jones at the Strawberry Mansion Sneaker Ball. (Steve Dixon/WHYY)

To Strawberry Mansion senior Saini Jones, it was a good substitute for a missed prom night. 

“Everybody’s been calling me a princess and I feel like a princess,” Jones said. “I just feel so happy to wear this dress, and I feel so proud of myself.” 

In addition to being a fun afternoon, the dance provides a secondary purpose, according to life skills teacher Jaimason Miller. 

“This is a chance for our kids to still be in a school setting and still be learning, but also unwind, work on those social relationships,” said Miller. “It may not look like it, but they are building social skills: talking together, dancing together, sharing a meal.” 

Leslie Archer, the life skills teacher at Strawberry Mansion who organized the Sneaker Ball. (Steve Dixon/WHYY)

Archer knew many of her students had never gotten to experience a dance, whether due to a lack of funds or transportation or something else. 

“Some of them have never put on gowns or suits or tuxedos before,” she said, “so they were really excited. This means a lot to them.”

Although this was the first year of the Sneaker Ball, it is the end of Archer’s 10-year tenure as a teacher at Strawberry Mansion,  as she plans to retire this coming summer.

“I wanted to go out on a high note,” said Archer. “I wanted to make sure that I left a legacy for the school to continue for years to come.”

Strawberry Mansion High School’s first Sneaker Ball. (Remington Vaughn/WHYY)
Strawberry Mansion High School’s first Sneaker Ball. (Regina Mills/WHYY)
Strawberry Mansion High School’s first Sneaker Ball. (Steve Dixon/WHYY)

Remington Vaughan

Remington Vaughan is a journalism intern and student at Conestoga High School.