By Mariano Castillo, CNN
Birmingham, Alabama (CNN) - The class of 1963 crowded in a rectangle on the dance floor, the memories of high school fresh on their minds as the band played in a sea of pink and blue hues.
Aretha Franklin. Etta James. The Temptations. Just what you would expect to be playing at a 1960s prom. Yet the song that drew the most bodies to the dance floor was "The Wobble."
Until this hip-hop song emptied the chairs, it felt as if the auditorium had been transported back 50 years.
But it's 2013, and despite the full-court nostalgia for the 1960s, that decade was one of the most difficult times in Birmingham's history.
Societal tensions over race were so high in 1963 that the city canceled senior prom for five of the city's segregated high schools for blacks.
Today, a half century has passed since the seminal civil rights protests that changed Birmingham and plotted a path for the nation away from segregation and toward equal rights.
Just like that path, the healing process has been a long one.
The Historic 1963 Prom, held Friday and hosted by the city of Birmingham, closed one chapter for these Alabamans.
'A tension-filled city'
Growing up in Birmingham in the 1950s, Earnestine Thomas knew the rules of this segregated city. At a restaurant, she could pay in the front, but had to walk around the back to get her food from a cook. She could shop only in certain places; there were neighborhoods that she knew not to visit.
"As a child, I recognized that it was unfair, but didn't understand that there were laws propping (segregation) up," she said as she waited for a hair appointment before Friday's prom.
She treated herself to a hair styling before donning a lavender dress with a sequined jacket and matching shoes. Lavender was a fitting color, she said, not just because it is her favorite, but because it was the school color at Parker High School.
It was a day of celebration that she and her classmates were denied in 1963.
By Rachel Simmons, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Spring may be graduation season, but the most coveted rite of passage for many teenage girls is the prom.
From the latest craze of "promposals" to the minute-by-minute social media broadcast of it all, the rituals of prom form a throwback cultural primer called "How to be a young woman." Teen girls are competing relentlessly to be queen.
The queens of prom are the conventionally beautiful, the wealthy and the heterosexual - always passively waiting to be asked.
Isn't prom just a fun dance that hardworking students deserve? Sure, but it's also an event where girls internalize damaging cultural messages. Those who are exalted on this "once in a lifetime" night offer an object lesson in how modern girls are expected to look and act.Prom is a cultural report card of sorts on how well, or not, young women are doing.
Here's what a bright 17-year-old girl learns as her lace gown drags behind her into the school gymnasium:
She learns that she must have money to attend the prom
Prom was modeled after the debutante ball of the old days, where elite girls formally announced they were ready to date, while a hand-picked bevy of suitors watched. Today, prom is still a rich girl's party.
In 2013, prom spending will rise on the shoulders of a more robust economy. Families who plan to spend money on the big night are expected to drop an average of $1,139. All that cash might be good for business, but it disadvantages the poor and working class girls who can't keep up. Meanwhile, boys can get away with renting a tux for less than $100.
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
Wilcox County, Georgia (CNN) - It's a springtime tradition in this stretch of the magnolia midlands for crowds to gather at high school students' proms. They'll cheer for teens in tuxedos and gowns while an announcer reads what the students will do once they leave this pecan grove skyline.
Earlier this month, Wilcox County High School senior Mareshia Rucker rode to a historic theater in the nearby town of Fitzgerald to see her own classmates' prom celebration. She never left the car, even to catch up with her friends. She'd recently helped to invite the critical gaze of the world to her county; few would be happy to see her there, she said. Besides, she's black and wasn't invited to this prom reserved for white students anyway.
For as long as most remember, Wilcox County High School hasn't sponsored a prom for its 400 students. Instead, parents and their children organize their own private, off-site parties, known casually as white prom and black prom - a vestige of racial segregation that still lives on.
"When people say that seeing is believing, it truly is," Mareshia says a few days later from the comfortable bustle of her family's kitchen, central command for the three generations that share it.
"Just talking about it, it didn't hurt my feelings. I didn't care," she says. "When I saw it, I felt really crappy. I didn't understand what was so different about me and them."
She apologizes as her eyes grow shiny and tears dribble down her face. Toni Rucker swoops in to fold her arms around her oldest daughter.
"What is the difference," she murmurs, Mareshia's head resting on her chest. "There is no difference."
Mareshia and her friends bucked 40 years of local customs this month by organizing their own integrated prom, a formal dance open to Wilcox County's white, black, Latino and Asian high school students. Organizers, both black and white, said they lost friends in the process - a grim experience in the waning weeks of the school year. It's been hard on the rest of their hometown, too.
When the story erupted on TV and social media, Wilcox County became a symbol of race relations stuck in the past. People around the world heard about the sneers from some classmates, the silence from some adults, the school board that says it supports them but didn't sponsor its own prom. Thousands lashed out at the old tradition or offered up kind words, cash, dresses, a DJ. Stunned, they wanted to know, could this be true? In 2013?
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) – As Quanesha Wallace remembers, it was around this time last year when the idea first came up at Wilcox County High School. It was nothing big, just chatter about prom, school, what comes next, what they'd change.
If things were different, someone said, we'd all go to the same prom.
For as long as anyone could remember, students in their South Georgia community went to separate proms, and homecoming dances, too. White students from Wilcox County attend one. Black students, another. They’re private events organized by parents and students, not the school district. Schools have long been desegregated, but in Wilcox County, the dances never changed.
The friends all agreed they'd go to an integrated prom, Quanesha said, and when they asked, others said, "Yeah, I'd go, too."
"We are all friends," Quanesha's friend, Stephanie Sinnot, told CNN affiliate WGXA-TV in Macon, Georgia. "That's just kind of not right that we can't go to prom together."
So now it's April, and prom is coming up, and these black and white friends, longtime pals who go to classes together and play sports together and hang out together, are going to prom together, too. For the first time, students are organizing an integrated dance, one that welcomes any of Wilcox County High's 400 students.
"This is going to be the biggest prom ever to come through Wilcox County," said Quanesha, one of the event's organizers.
The theme will be "Masquerade Ball in Paris." There will be an Eiffel Tower and Mardi Gras-style masks, dancing, flowers, catered food and a clubhouse in nearby Cordele. They're expecting gowns, ties, manicures, up-dos, sparkle. Quanesha has a date, although she hasn't decided on a dress.
"If you want to get fancy, get fancy," said Quanesha, 18. "If you don't, that's fine."
Attendees will vote on a king and queen but also cutest couple, best smile, best dressed. They'll do a recognition ceremony for a classmate who died. They'll start a new prom tradition: a unity toast.
(CNN) - Camden, New Jersey, is not an easy place for a kid to grow up in.Just ask 15-year-old Destinee Williams."Camden has this reputation of being dangerous because you can walk outside at 3 in the afternoon and hear gunshots," Destinee said. "Gangs and drugs are a huge deal. Kids get into gangs to feel safe so they won't get killed."
Unfortunately, Destinee has had to deal with too many killings in her young life.
"My father was murdered in Camden last year, and my cousin was murdered (last month)," she said. "In the last month, I know of at least three people getting killed. In Camden, I expect it to happen. I'm not surprised anymore."
For many people, the violence in Camden can make it feel more like a war zone than an American city, but the battle doesn't end there.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 42% of Camden's population is living below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in the United States. The New Jersey Department of Education reports that nearly 90% of Camden's schools are in the bottom 5% performance-wise in the state.
About 42% of Camden's population is living below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in the United States.
"For too long, the public school system in Camden has failed its children," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday, when he announced the state would be taking over the city's schools. "Each day that it gets worse, we're failing the children of Camden, we're denying them a future, we're not allowing them to reach their full potential."
Camden may seem like a city without hope, but one of its native daughters is on a mission to change its downtrodden reputation and empower its youngest residents.
Tawanda Jones started a dance team, the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team, to entice young girls to stay off the street and do something positive with their lives. Over the years, she has incorporated boys into the team and also started a drum line program.
"People perceive Camden and its kids as garbage," Jones said. "We have so many gifted kids. They want more out of life. There's just nothing in our city to do. Therefore, what happens when a child has idle time and no positive way to channel that energy? They have to find something else. And it just may turn into the dark side."
Through the drill team, Jones aims to teach kids about discipline, dedication and self-respect, things she believes are necessary to survive and thrive in this rough community and beyond.
"Whether you need it for work, you need it for school, you need discipline, period," said Jones, 40. "Drill team is good as far as structure, because you have to be precise. You have to be on point."
"If they get too many Cs, we put them on academic probation," Jones said. "We don't want to kick a child out because they're not doing well in school, so on my days off I go to the child's school just to correspond with the teacher. I'll just make sure that the child is doing well or (see) what we can do on our end to help that child get to where she needs to be."
(CNN) - There's something a bit different about Dan Johnson's classroom at Cambridge-Isanti High School in Cambridge, Minnesota. Johnson remakes the room and his wardrobe to help students understand history. Recently, he replaced the fluorescent lights in his room with bare bulbs and lamps, posted Depression-era grocery ads on the wall and played music of the era for his students. Johnson will retire this year after 32 years of teaching history, according to CNN affiliate KARE, but watch the video to get a sense of how his students have learned about history over the years.
Editor's note: Check out CNN Living's story about a college program creating jobs by training students to revive a 'dying trade.'
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - You can almost hear the old shop teacher asking - so, how is this going to work?
In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama talked about redesigning schools for a high-tech future. He gave a shout-out to a technical high school in Brooklyn, and to 3-D printing. In a moment of seeming agreement, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio mentioned incentives for schools to add vocational and career training.
But long gone are the days of shop class, or even "vocational training," said Stephen DeWitt, the senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education. For many years, he saw career and technical education cut by shrunken budgets or "literally and figuratively left in the back of the school, separate from academics."
What's emerging in schools now is something tougher to pin down. In one district, it might be a fancy new school dedicated to teaching tech. In another, an apprenticeship program. Some schools design career and technical classes to line up with college-prep courses that guide students to become engineers, chefs, CEOs or doctors. Almost 80% of high school students who concentrated on career and technical studies pursued some type of postsecondary education within two years of finishing high school, the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2011.
"We’re hearing policy makers talk about it more often. Certain districts are looking at career and technical education as a way to reform schools," DeWitt said. "The focus on project-based learning, how to get students engaged more, is something that’s caught on."
That might mean more maker spaces sprouting up at schools, too.
Students helped build out the maker space at Analy High School.
They are exactly what they sound like - a space to make things. The workshops and warehouses have taken off in communities around the country during the last few years, but the push to add them to schools is still fresh.
"Maker spaces aren't in schools and they need to be," MAKE magazine founder Dale Dougherty told a crowd at Maker Faire in Michigan last summer. "Not just a summer camp, not just an after-school program."
MAKE secured a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build the "hacker spaces" in schools - a move some criticized because of its military ties. The money helped to launch maker spaces at a handful of Northern California schools this school year.
The goal: more than 1,000 by 2015.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNschools
(CNN) - Ben Linnabary still has a few more months to go at Colerain High School near Cincinnati, Ohio. His mom, though, didn't have that long to wait.
Jennifer Linnabary had been fighting an aggressive form of cancer since 2009. A few weeks ago, as her condition worsened, her friends, family and representatives from the school held a one-person graduation ceremony for Ben in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center intensive care unit. There was a red cap and gown for Ben, the traditional graduation music, applause when he received his diploma and a gentle toss of his mortarboard.
Less than 24 hours later, Jennifer Linnabary died, CNN affiliate WLWT reported.
"It was very surreal, just the fact that they could get all of these people together," Ben told WLWT. "It was very hard at the same time, being there with my mom and knowing that, you know, these might be the last hours I would spend with her."
Tokyo (CNN) - On the surface, it resembles just about any other high school in Japan - or any high school in most places around the world.
Students sit quietly studying math, science and English; some struggle to stay focused, looking at the clock and waiting for the bell to ring. When the school day ends, some move out to the sports fields for rugby or soccer practice, while others study music in emptying hallways.
What makes this school different is the pictures of two men scattered throughout the building - portraits of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and previous leader Kim Jong Il.
The Tokyo Korean Middle and High School, which is currently home to 650 students, is one of 10 high schools in Japan with long standing ties to North Korea.
It's something the school's principal, Gil-ung Shin, is very open about.
"Yes, North Korea has given us financial support over the years, sending us money and textbooks," he says.
The school also organizes annual trips to Pyongyang, where students are given highly orchestrated tours of the reclusive North Korean capital.
But the students we spoke with laughed at suggestions from some quarters that they are being trained as spies.
"People think we're being brain-washed. We're not. We just want to study Korean culture and language," 17-year-old Kyong Rae Ha says.
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - Some 20 years ago, when Troy Gunter was a new band director, he had the crazy idea that his high school students should someday march in the Rose Parade.
It’s a lofty goal for any band. The annual march through Pasadena began in 1890 and evolved into a New Year’s Day spectacle of music, flowers and football watched by 700,000 along the route and 39 million more on TV.
Gunter's school, Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California, grew from a few hundred kids to more than a thousand. The private school's marching band ballooned to about 150 students and evolved into the school's Conservatory of the Arts. Over the years, the marching band took on more competitions, longer parades and overseas travel.
A few years ago, when Gunter and the band returned from a trip to Cambodia, an idea struck: Why not apply to the Rose Parade now, with an international partner?
Problem was, they didn’t really know any overseas bands. They weren’t sure how they could practice together, let alone organize for the grandest stage a high school marching band can reach.
With the 2013 parade deadline looming, they got in touch with Beijing’s No. 57 High School. The band’s director, Lu Jin, was familiar with the Rose Parade, and his band had played a few major events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Through a contact of a contact of a contact, we got together,” Gunter said. “It was like a blind date.”
Without ever meeting, Gunter, who doesn’t speak Chinese, and Lu Jin, who doesn’t speak English, agreed to go for it.