High school senior classes in America are famous for embracing tradition -- it's just that sometimes, traditions die.
This year, on April 21, Turner County High School in Ashburn, Ga., about 80 miles north of the Florida border, will for the first time host a prom open to both black and white students.
Fifty-five percent of Ashburn's 4,000 residents are black. The other 45 percent are white. The ratio holds about the same for the high school's 456 students, and among the senior class the ratio of black and white students is almost even.
For as long as anyone can remember, the high school has not held an official school prom.
Instead, there have been two unofficial events: a black prom and a white prom.
But this year, under the guidance of four elected senior-class officers -- two black, two white -- and a first-year high school principal, the school will combine the previously segregated dances into a single, tropical-themed prom in the school's newly built gymnasium.
The event, appropriately, will be called the "Breakaway," as in breaking from tradition.
"We were aware that they always had separate proms here," said Turner principal Chad Stone. "We've always tried to have one prom for the students here, but they'd rather have their own."
Planning for 'Something Special'
Stone may have just taken over as principal this year, but he knows the landscape at Turner well, having served five years as a social studies teacher and four as an assistant principal.
When the four senior-class officers announced in September that they wanted to end the tradition of holding segregated proms, he said he was open to the idea.
The school's administration addresses the very issue of a prom in the school's handbook, offering to provide financial support and a location for the event -- under two conditions: The class officers, and the larger student body, had to demonstrate a genuine support for the event, and they had to agree to a few reasonable prom policies.
After they agreed to the latter, it didn't take too much for the Class of 2007 to show Stone the shared sentiment.
"I just think this is a close-knit group of kids," Stone said. "Everybody here, white and black, this probably [is] as close knit a group as I've seen."
Stone couldn't point to one single characteristic that had made this class want to strike a different course, but he said parents had helped bring together the two sides who every day share classes, athletic fields and all the other experiences of high school in America. It's a sentiment that has spilled over to the younger students, he said.
"These are things that are going to be remembered as pretty special, and that's how we want to [be] remembered," Stone said. "We already go to school together -- let's start a tradition so that in 20 years from now, this is no big deal at all."
There will be some students, Stone admitted, who will express their own First Amendment rights and choose not to attend the "first-ever" nonsegregated prom. But beyond the common mischief tied to prom -- underage drinking, for example -- Stone said he expected an event free of protest.
He also expects a strong attendance -- so far about 100 $25 tickets have been sold to the 200 juniors and seniors invited. Of course, high schoolers are well-known for procrastinating, black or white.