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High School Costs Are Far More Than A Pretty Penny

 Elissia LaPorte is standing in front of a large full length mirror underneath a hand-painted sign that says "Hello Gorgeous."

The senior who attends Tampa's Leto High School is shopping for a prom dress at the Belle of the Ball boutique in Clearwater, which has close to 4,000 gowns on display.

LaPorte has already tried on several and after she picks her favorite, she won't have to pay for it.  

"I think it's amazing cause I come from an underprivileged school,” she said. "So, since senior year is costing so much, these programs really help out kids just like me."

Elissia's mother Lena agrees that senior year expenses are running up quite a tab in their household. Yearbooks typically cost about $100. Class rings are $200 and up. Then there are the senior pictures and caps and gowns. 

"It's a lot and thank God for these programs to help us,” she said.

Prom can be one of the most memorable events in the life of a high schooler, but the occasion and other costs associated with senior year, can put a damper on what should be a happy time. According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, prom-related costs can add up to hundreds of dollars.

"It's a delicate situation,” said Belle of the Ball founder Susan Schwartz. “You have girls in here that Mom or Dad or both of them are not working and they cannot afford a dress."

The volunteer project provides prom dresses to in-need, high school girls throughout the Tampa Bay area.

The "boutique" is actually the old library of a closed elementary school. The space was donated by the Pinellas County School district and since then, volunteers have cleaned the building, painted the walls and even installed dressing rooms.

"It is not a smelly thrift store,” Schwartz said. “It looks like a department store and so we try to erase that stigma."

Since its inception, Belle of the Ball has given away more than 4,500 dresses and countless shoes, purses and accessories. Carol Ciadella, a teacher at Gulfside Elementary School in Holiday, came to the store with a former student. The educator said she worries that the hefty prom price tag can make the event out of reach for too many.

"If you don't have a lot of money, you will choose not to do it,” she said. “And a lot of kids, they don't ask for help so they just think, 'nope can't afford it, I won't go.'"

And it’s not just parents and educators who are watching senior-year costs add up. Devon Phillip is a member of student leadership at Estero High School near Fort Myers. The senior said he's lucky because his family can afford to pick up the tab for his needs, but some of his friends are struggling.

"They work every weekend five to midnight,” he said. “Their weekend is spent working just to pay for their car insurance, and they still want to go to prom. So it just sucks for those kids that have to work on their education, sports, clubs and try to support  their own families where everyone else is just sitting comfortable."

And these senior costs aren't just about the fun stuff, such as prom or a senior trip. Taking the SAT college prep test costs upward of $50. The average college application costs $37 and most high school counselors advise kids to apply to multiple schools. 

The idea that some students will feel they are unable to pay for what may seem like a little thing is what keeps Susan Schwartz and her volunteers at Belle of the Ball so motivated.

"We cry at every shopping day just put it that way,” she said. “We're so excited for the girls and the parents are elated and when you have fathers come in that want to do the best for their daughters…and a lot of them are single fathers, they are just so happy to be able to get them a dress."

Similar organizations exist across the country.  A "Prom Boutique" is part of "Project Upstart” in Miami-Dade, a store where homeless kids can shop for free. "Becca's Closet" in Broward County has distributed 100,000 gowns in 34 states. The organization, named in memory of a young girl who was killed by a drunk driver, recently launched a second charity, “Becca’s Angels,” which buys prom tickets for students.

Ciadella, the elementary teacher from Holiday, said these kinds of groups are providing something that taxpayers never will.

"I don't think people think about this,” she said. “They think about giving people food but they don't think about making them enjoy their high school experience. Everybody should get to do that stuff, not just people with money.”

The next shopping day at the "Belle of the Ball" in Clearwater happens Saturday, May 7.


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