High School Principal Dancing At Prom Wins Hearts Everywhere

“If you invest in yourself through education, you can prove the possible.”

It took just 10 seconds to catapult KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy's principal to Internet fame.

Principal Sean Stevens didn't hesitate to show off his dance moves at the high school's prom on June 7. While it was a delightful surprise for the nearly 1.5 million viewers of the video posted online, for Principal Stevens's students it was just another day at their school under his inspiring leadership.

"This little 10-second video, which they made me get up and do, has been like 'whoa, I don't even know the influence I'm having,'" he told A Plus. "My students know I'm not their friend. We don't hang out on the weekends. But what I am for them is their big brother, their psychologist, their shoulder to cry on. All that I do comes from a place of love and like anyone that truly loves you, sometimes I have to be hard on them."

Stevens, like many of his students today, grew up in poverty without his parents, who both struggled with drug addiction. The 30-year-old educator and his eight siblings were raised in Jersey City, NJ by their grandmother, who instilled in them the importance of education despite only completing up to eight grade herself.

"I'm the first in my family to graduate from high school and college," Stevens, who is currently completing his Doctorate from Vanderbilt, told A Plus. '"

Sadly, just 6-months ago, one of Stevens younger brothers was murdered in Jersey City where they grew up. But, despite the odds stacked against him throughout his childhood, and still today in his adult life, Stevens continues to be resilient and focused on ending the cycle of inner-city youth believing that the dismal circumstances they were born into is as good as it gets.

"When you're growing in a situation like that, you don't really know that you don't have," the Cornell University grad said. "When everyone around you is going through the same struggle you think that it's normal."

It was '90s sitcoms, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which showed Stevens a different side of "Black excellence" and he wanted that in his own life. Without male role models, Stevens found them on TV and discovered that the one thing that set them apart from his circumstances was education.

"I began reading the encyclopedia in fourth grade. We didn't have books in my house, but we did have this old set of encyclopedias and I remember just looking through them and reading about random stuff and that was my only source of knowledge," he recalled, adding how today he strives to be "a model of excellence to our kids," so they have real-life role models and not just those on TV.

"If you invest in yourself through education, you can prove the possible," he said.

Courtesy of Sean Stevens
Courtesy of Sean Stevens

Every morning, Stevens greets his 663 students in Newark's West Ward with a hand shake, high five or even a hug.  This year's senior class produced 86 percent of students who were accepted to four-year colleges and the school regularly sends more African American students to four-year colleges than nearly every other high school in the state.

"As a black woman and man in America you don't have the opportunity to be mediocre because you may not get a second chance," the author of Unseen Thoughts confidently said. "I make sure to let my students know, 'you are not going to be another Trayvon Martin, you're not going to be another Freddie Gray, you can't be another Alton Sterling. I need to make sure you're ready for that and everything that you learn in these four walls are teaching you those things because the world is a crazy, cruel place.'"

As Principal Stevens anticipates this Sunday's graduation, he reflects, as he does at the end of every school year, on how just simply being a successful young, black, male shows his students how far they can go in their own lives. The fact that he's inspired millions throughout the United States with a lighthearted and fun moment with his senior class caught on video, is the icing on the cake.

"More than building friendships with students it's about empathizing with them and understanding their plight and what they're going to face when they go into the world and preparing them for it," Stevens said. "My goal is to be a mentor for them and a role model of excellence. And everyday kids walk into my school I want them to see their potential and their reflection in me."

Cover image via  mary981 I Shutterstock

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