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With Meghna Chakrabarti
A Newark, New Jersey, high school principal gave bullied kids a way to wash their clothes — and a lot more. Get ready for a lesson on inspiration.
On his first year at West Side
"When I first got the word that we were going to West Side, I was at another school, and I was kind of scared because I heard the bad things that went on at West Side. So even though I'm from the area, it still was like the Bermuda Triangle. I want to say, about the first week, when all of us got together, the school was about to open, and we opened up with a death. They found one of my baby girls in an abandoned building, decomposed. She was killed because she was pregnant, they didn't want the baby. So that was my first bout with death when I got to West Side.
"When we opened up the doors, when I say every kid was just in the hallway — it looked like a mall. No one was going into rooms, and all these gang signs, and it looked like a scene out of 'Training Day.' It was scary. I had to go back to my teachings from my grandmother. The gangsters don't come to school. They already told their families that they weren't going to do it. So if a kid is in school, they're either afraid or loved — from their mama, nana, their uncle or somebody. We had to go at them a different way, and we've led with love, was being consistent and just loved on them until they realized, one, we weren't going anywhere. Those kids that didn't want to do it, we had to remove them, but we started righting the ship, and we started getting kids in class. I can't say a lot of teaching was going on, but at least they were in class and were willing to learn.
"About midway through that year, one of my students, a young man, he was kidnapped. And come to find out it was alleged that he knew where the good drugs were, and when he didn't give them the information they needed, they killed him and threw his body in his neighborhood. So that was two deaths that I had at West Side.
"We started righting the ship, and we started getting kids in class. I can't say a lot of teaching was going on, but at least they were in class and were willing to learn."Akbar Cook
"I remember going into the summer thinking, 'Wow, this is not what I signed up for, losing babies.' I was listening to, almost like a police scanner on Facebook, and I don't want to say the place, but they pretty much just talk about everything that goes on in different neighborhoods. I remember watching everything that goes on in the West Ward — either it was my kids that were doing it or it was happening to my kids. It was a terrible summer for me."
On opening the school during the summer to provide kids a place to stay safe
"So we opened again the next year, and again we right the ship, and everything was going smooth. I had this one kid that was straddling the fence. He was still in the streets but he wanted his mother to see him walk across that stage. He was going to do it. About two weeks before graduation, he was killed by a drive-by shooting. That was three babies that I lost.
"I was saying, 'You know what? I'm not going into the summer being a bystander, I'm going to do something about it. I'm a kid that grew up in the Boys and Girls Club, so let's open up our doors on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. because that's when all the crime was happening, and let's just provide a safe place for them.'
"We opened it up and I want to say by the first week or so we had about 30 folks there, and it was a weird demographic because I had 40-year-old parents with their kids, 25-year-old gangbangers and 8-year-olds. Nevertheless, they needed us, so we just loved on them and provided all these resources."
"Let's open up our doors on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. because that's when all the crime was happening, and let's just provide a safe place for them."Akbar Cook
The program swells and expands to after-school hours
"We were doing that for about three weeks, and then a gentleman by the name of Barry Carter, he writes out here for NJ.com and NJ Advanced Media, and he wrote the article about Lights On! When the word got out, I started averaging about 150 kids started coming. It was a great summer. There was no acts of violence in my part of town, it was amazing.
"School opened back up, and it was the week after Labor Day. I said, 'You know what? Let's just have a great big celebration just to acknowledge the wonderful thing that we did this summer.' I wanna say I had 278 participants come out. I was giving out Keurig machines. We had an ice cream truck.
"I had this one baby girl, she came and gave me a high-five. She got some ice cream and she left. And later on that night she was killed by a stray bullet. That was four babies that I lost. It drove home the point that I wasn't doing enough things for the ladies. I couldn't wait until the next summer to save them, so I said, 'We're going to open up Light's On! during the school year. I'm going to change my athletic schedule around, and we can open it up from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every Friday night during the school year.'
"I started adding henna, the eyelashes, the recording studio, the jewelry making, the fashion and design. We started averaging, about 350 kids started coming out. Since we did that, that was three summers ago, I haven't lost anymore kids to gun violence. I had 263 last Friday. It's still going on. That's what I'm most happy about. We've been saving lives and we've been showing, I guess the nation and other principals, that this can work, and you need this in your city, as well, to prevent the kids from getting into trouble."
From The Reading List
CBS News: "How a laundry room revolutionized a New Jersey high school" — "'The big room' at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, is where principal Akbar Cook stores hundreds of donated bottles of laundry detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets. The big room was a solution to a big problem.
"'My kids weren't coming to school,' he said.
"Some of the students weren't showing up because they were wearing dirty clothes and getting bullied.
"'I think we really put the microscope on basic needs of kids. Everyone wants the high test scores, everyone wants them to perform well. But if the kid doesn't feel confidence in just coming to school, being that person we know they can be, then what are we doing,' Cook said.
"Today, West Side High School has five commercial grade washing machines and dryers. Deshon Denny and Briana Singleton use them all the time."
NJ Advance Media/NJ.com: "Students were bullied because of dirty clothes. Washing machines in the locker room will change that." -- "The Facebook picture of Akbar Cook standing in front of washing machines and dryers looked rather odd at West Side High School in Newark.
"Not to Cook, who is the school's new principal this school year. The appliances are not out of place at all. In fact, he said, they're needed to remove a barrier that kept students from coming to school when he was vice principal.
"Students couldn't afford to wash their school uniforms, a financial situation at home that was made worse when they did show up to school.
"Wearing a dirty school uniform opened them up to bullying, teasing and jokes that didn't end when school was over, Cook said. Students snapped cellphone pictures of a classmate's dirty collar or stained Khaki pants and posted them to social media."
The Grio: "Principal Akbar Cook keeps school open Friday nights as safe haven for students" — "Hundreds of teens spend their Friday night inside West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey because it’s a safe, judgement free save haven as part of the Lights On program, launched by Principal Akbar Cook.
"Cook previously made headlines when he put a laundry room at the school after his students were being bullied over their dirty clothes. The move was made possible after he secured a $20,000 grant from PSE&G and with the help of labor from Newark Public Schools, he turn the football team’s locker room into a free, on-campus laundromat, CBS New York reported.
"'Confidence is a big thing with everyone. To feel that you smell good, look good, I think that goes a long way,' Cook told the outlet."
Anna Bauman produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on April 23, 2019.
This program aired on April 23, 2019.
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