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A new spin on lunch: Ken Caryl principal starts a karaoke revolution

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By Matt Gunn

The lunchroom erupted in cheers as seventh-grader Grant Stavrakas finished belting out “Proud Mary.”

And the cheers didn’t come simply because someone of Grant’s age could hit every note just like John Fogerty did in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 recording. It was also because Grant presided over the room with the flair of a rock ’n’ roll front man. He even brought a quartet of backup dancers.

“It’s like he is a completely different person when he steps up there,” said Patrick Santos, his principal.

And when the song ended, Grant quietly left his stage near the cafeteria doors. But his actions didn’t go unrewarded — they brought smiles to everyone’s face.

It was the perfect way for Ken Caryl Middle School students to end their lunch break on the final day of a long week.

It doesn’t take a whole lot to get Santos to allow his students to sing and dance: just a week’s worth of good behavior.

“It’s kind of a nice culminating thing, too,” Santos said. “We work really hard all week ee it’s a right-out hit.”

Throughout Friday lunch — if the students have earned it — a selection of time-tested hits from the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Foundations, The Temptations and even Boston fills the cafeteria.

“He sings ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ sometimes, and then other people will sing it too,” Devin Van Sickle, an eighth-grader, said of Grant the crooner. “We sing it.”

Santos patrols the lunchroom, bobbing with the music and sometimes singing into a microphone. And, every now and again, whether they volunteer or not, so do the students.

“He’s a fun principal,” Devin said.

The song that really gets the students up is much more contemporary, however, and comes at the end of each lunch period, just before the kids head back to class.

The students clear their seats as soon as they hear the first notes of Mr. C’s “Cha Cha Slide.” And they get up not to run away, but to gather near the lunch-line doors to dance in unison to what’s become the modern-day equivalent of the “Electric Slide.”

“I’ve got teachers into it here,” Santos said. “They come out and dance with the kids.”

Friday lunches are a festive affair most weeks at Ken Caryl. What could otherwise be just another lunch period before the week is over has become a joyous occasion.

Some hesitate to sing or dance to the music Santos provides. But they are seemingly in the minority, as most of the kids let loose and enjoy the moment.

“He has continued it on all year, and the kids just love it,” said Francesca Jensen, Ken Caryl’s attendance and enrollment secretary. “I think it provides unity for all the kids. Everyone’s just accepted.”

Whether it’s athletes, artists or anyone in between, students who dance the “Cha Cha Slide” know no cliques.

“It breaks that down,” Santos said.

The overriding power of the music simply lets most kids have fun.

“For middle school kids who are so nervous about it — who don’t want to do anything different — they have a really good time,” Santos said.

He isn’t in it alone. While it might take some bravery for a principal to get in front of his students — or his peers, for that matter — it’s even more unusual to see large groups of adolescents getting their groove on with un-self-conscious glee.

“He goes around and makes people sing,” said seventh-grader Haley Brush. “It’s hilarious.”

A member of the student senate, Haley said the group is planning an appropriate Christmas present for the toe-tapping songster of a principal.

Though she appreciates the music, Haley believes it might be time to mix up the No. 1 lunchtime single.

“We’re getting a little tired of that one,” she said of the “Cha Cha Slide.”

“We should do ‘Crank That,’ ” added seventh-grader Megan McClain.

There were otherwise few dissenters during each of the three lunch periods when the “Cha Cha Slide” came on. Students either smiled and stood up, or they smiled, stood up and rushed to where the big group gathered to dance.

“I love it,” Santos said. “They just have a great time.”

On a recent Friday, after the final “Cha Cha Slide,” and after Grant Stavrakas brought the house down with “Proud Mary,” Santos wished the students a great weekend as they filed off to class.

“You know what the thing is?” Santos said. “At 3 o’clock, maybe 4, they still have that energy.”

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.