Ending senior year with a bang isn’t cheap at many L.A.-area high schools

Clarisa Ortega waits to accept her diploma at her North Hollywood High graduation ceremony.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Maria Escobar is a single mother of three with an annual income of $45,000 after taxes. Like most parents, she wanted to give her daughter a senior year to remember.

She just didn’t expect the price tag.


FOR THE RECORD: In the June 8 California section, an article about the costs associated with high school graduation events said that the expenses at North Hollywood High included a $450 package for a cap and gown, prom ticket, senior class panorama picture, yearbook, letterman jacket and other items. The $450 expenses included a $300 package for cap and gown, graduation stole, diploma cover, tassel picture frame, key chain, senior panorama picture, yearbook and prom ticket, plus additional costs for a letterman jacket and extra picture frames. Students are not required to purchase a cap and gown.


The expenses at North Hollywood High included a $450 package for a cap and gown, prom ticket, senior class panorama picture, yearbook, letterman jacket and other items. The $400 senior portrait package. The $300 class ring. The $250 prom dress, with another $220 for hair, makeup and nails, $85 for a limousine and $65 for shoes. The $120 for grad night at Disneyland and other expenses.


Overall cost: about $2,225.

“It’s outrageous — we are all working-class, trying to motivate our children to stay in school and be someone,” said Escobar, who pulled the money from her savings account for her daughter, Clarisa Ortega. “But she’s my last daughter, my baby. I wanted her to have the best.”

Escobar’s sticker shock has hit families hard in these final weeks of high school, which are filled with such iconic senior events as prom, grad night, class breakfasts, picnics and trips — not to mention yearbook ads, college application fees and campus visits. Financial experts estimate that senior-year activities could cost between $5,000 and $10,000; a nationwide survey by Visa Inc. found that 2015 prom spending alone topped $900 — a third of that covering increasingly elaborate “prom-posals,” asking dates to the dance.

More affluent families may shrug off the costs. Rancho Palos Verdes parent Jon Kaji figures he spent nearly $15,000 this year, including $4,000 for college visits to Japan, where his daughter, Austi, will attend Waseda University in Tokyo. He jokes that he’s an “ATM cash machine,” dishing out nearly $2,500 for Austi’s senior-year dance expenses, grad night, ditch day and other Palos Verdes Peninsula High events.

“It goes out and it doesn’t come back,” Kaji said. “I just suck it up.”

For lower-income parents, the expenses present a significant hardship — yet also a flurry of efforts to help.

Isidra Varela-Rosas, senior class president at Esteban Torres High in East Los Angeles, said she managed to afford her activities by raising money through school-sponsored chocolate sales, donations from two teachers and support from her cousin and parents. The UC Berkeley-bound senior said she would not have been able to attend her prom without their help.

“All senior events are seen as a luxury, but they closed off my high school years and really made them memorable,” she said.

At Daniel Pearl Magnet High in Lake Balboa, parents collected and offered gently used prom dresses. Seniors, meanwhile, began raising money three years ago with such events as doughnut and pizza sales outside school hours, biweekly dances and bowling, miniature golf and ice skating parties.

Robert Hoeks, the school’s senior class sponsor and a social studies teacher, said the efforts raised about $5,000 — enough to offer the senior breakfast and picnic for free and drop the price of a prom ticket to as low as $65. (Elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley, Sylmar High charged $115.)

Hoeks said the efforts largely succeeded, as the prom attracted 125 students, mostly from the senior class of 120. “My goal was that money wouldn’t be an issue — if [students] wanted to go, we could make it work,” Hoeks said.

Still, not everyone who wanted to attend did.

Jake Dobbs, whose family is struggling to live on $24,000 in annual Social Security income after his father lost his business, said he couldn’t afford to buy the dressy clothes needed for prom.

“I wasn’t too bummed.... I’m not a real party person, but it would have been nice to go with friends,” he said.

At Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, the Booster Club raised money for senior class activities by offering $200 VIP seats on the football field for graduation ceremonies.

Arcadia High offered support to low-income students such as Sunny Xu, who qualifies for federally subsidized school meals. Sunny, 18, said his graduation fee of $40 was waived and his grad night ticket was discounted from $130 to $65. He passed on senior pictures but took the plunge for prom, spending $370 for his first suit and two tickets.

To pay for such expenses, Sunny used savings from his $9-an-hour lifeguarding job, as did his classmate, Mackenzie Wong. Mackenzie, 17, has worked as a lifeguard for the last two years, saving enough to pay for half her $300 prom dress, $180 for dance tickets and flowers and $800 for college application fees.

“It’s the only way I can afford this; otherwise I’d be begging my mother for money,” said Mackenzie, who plans to attend UC San Diego.

Linda Wong, Mackenzie’s mother and a retired nonprofit executive, said she directed her daughter to pay for some of her expenses to learn the value of money. But she said senior-year costs were getting “ridiculous” and they should be limited based on feedback from families on what they are able to pay.

“It’s good to make senior year a real memorable experience, but it has to be done within reason and with an understanding that families have different levels of financial resources,” Wong said.
Twitter: @teresawatanabe