When it comes to raising money, McKinley High School does it with class. While some schools sell candies and others put on shows, McKinley holds a cotillion.
That's right: a cotillion; and they do it the old-fashioned way, with girls gowned in long white dresses and holding single red roses. Their young escorts wear tuxedos and highly polished shoes.
Seventeen 11th- and 12th-grade girls, selected by a faculty committee for their scholastic averages, community and church involvement and impeccable behavior, gained the privilege of being presented to society at the school-sponsored cotillion.
One by one the girls, who had attended several weeks of charm school to learn public speaking, poise and curtsies and had weeks of rehearsing, recently were presented along with their escorts to a capacity crowd of 200 at the Petty Officers Club at the Navy Yard in Southeast.
In the audience mothers craned to see the daughters who were now elegant young women and the eyes of proud fathers misted over.
"That's when the butterflies in my stomach really started fluttering," said Tracy Underdue, an 11th grader who was selected the cotillion queen. "During most of the ceremony I was crying tears of pure joy."
Twana Key, 16, also a junior, added, "To be presented to society as a lady in front of my family and friends -- that's why I wanted to be a debutante."
McKinley, located at Second and T streets NE, held its first cotillion last year and remains the only city high school to sponsor the event, a traditional social function at which parents formally present their daughters to society.
Between dances, the guests socialized at linen-covered tables with floral centerpieces, or they filled their plates at a long buffet table.
After selection by the committee the girls raised $8,000 by selling advertisements in their debutante yearbook. That money will be used to defray the costs of the cotillion, purchase new curtains for the school auditorium and some senior class activities. But the girls will also benefit from their hard work because some of the money will be spent on a weekend trip to New York for themselves and their mothers.
"Basically this is a fund-raiser for the school," said assistant principal Leroy Adams. "We also wanted to put on a program that would present our students in a very positive light, and give our best young women the opportunity to experience being a part of something they otherwise might never have known."
McKinley, once one of the city's most prestigious high schools, now draws half its 1,600 students from the working class families who live in the nearby modest brick row houses. The other 50 percent come from around the city, said Principal Bettye Topps.
Sixty percent of the students go on to college.
"We want to show that we have some very fine young women in this school who are eminently worthy of being presented to society, even though their parents may not be doctors or lawyers," said Thomas Graham, a senior class sponsor and American government teacher.
"Even when black organizations, such as fraternities and sororities, sponsored activities like this in the past, they usually were open only to middle and upper-middle-class girls," Graham said.
"I see great things for these young ladies," said Fayetta Guinyard, a teacher and senior class sponsor who originated the cotillion last year. "We want to give them a worthy goal to work towards now, so that they will set high goals for themselves throughout their lives."
In between visiting local businesses, family and friends and asking them to buy advertisements, the debutantes also received instruction from a private charm school in deportment, makeup and the art of curtsying gracefully.
"What makes a debutante is personality, self-esteem, integrity and being able to communicate with others," said Dawn Noelle Hicks, 17, who was first runner-up in the contest for queen.
It also takes money. Parents had to pay several hundred dollars for a one-night wardrobe that included a gown, shoes and stockings. Some stores offered student discounts. In addition there was a $75 entrance fee.
"These mothers are very proud to have been able to raise their girls into fine young women, often under very difficult conditions," Topps said, "so the cotillion is a recognition of them as well, and you can't put a price tag on that," she said.
"For a long time these types of affairs were practically taboo to some black youngsters, who considered them too bourgeois," Topps said. "But many parents remembered the positive aspects of a coming out party and have been very supportive of our efforts."
This year's debs included: Kimblyn Nichelle Clark; Angela Lynette DeVore; Carol Annette Edwards; Anniet Michele Glenn; Tina Joy Hawkins; Tiajuana Michelle James; Dawn Noelle Hicks; Ethel Lorreen Kemp; Twana M. Key; Valencia Mebane; Simona Elisabeth Reed; Daria Denise Richardson; Felit'ia Marie Smoak; Rachelle Denise Turner; Tracy Nichelle Underdue; Carol Demetria Watson, and Tammie Teresa Williams.
Some of last year's debs returned for the party. "You kind of miss it," said Karen Newkirk, now a freshman at Syracuse University in upstate New York. "You remember how it was for you to be honored as a lovely young girl. It really is a night that you will always remember."