School principal Akbar Cook decided to think outside the box when faced with a curious extracurricular predicament. Rather than insisting that his pupils do their washing at home, the head teacher installed a laundromat on the school premises. And the reason behind his unusual act is truly heartbreaking.
Akbar Cook is a big man wrestling with a big problem. Cook is the principal of West Side High School, a public high school situated in Newark, New Jersey. Unfortunately, due to it being located near gang territories, a lot of students face a tricky journey to and from school.
Cook is no stranger to the school – before scooping the top job he spent four years as a vice principal. But when he became principal at the beginning of this current academic year, he was determined to put his own stamp on things. And one of those things was to give a part of himself to his charges.
Speaking to Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen Show, it’s clear that Cook is heavily invested in his students. And this investment has its roots in a shocking incident that took place shortly after Cook joined the school in 2014. “When I first got to the school, I lost a student,” he told DeGeneres. “It was my first bout with death.”
Her passing had a profound effect on Cook. “It was like, wow, this goes on in schools?” he told DeGeneres. “I thought this is something I’ve just seen on TV.” Pressed on how he tries to help the school kids today, the principal replied, “Just be there for them, just love, I just call it love. I just try to give so much love that they give it back to me.”
When Cook took over as principal he realised he faced a big problem that needed to be tackled right away. Mindful of the threat from gangs, he resolved to do all he could to eradicate negative peer pressure from the school premises. And he’d start by building a laundromat on the school premises. But why?
Well, Cook had noticed that some kids were turning up for class in dirty clothes, a state of affairs that couldn’t be doing much for their self-esteem. One particular story highlights the issue. “Two years ago, we had a situation where a young lady was coming into school and the security guard was getting ready to go through her bag,” Cook told DeGeneres. “She took a full bottle of water and hurled it at the security guard’s face.”
“She started kicking stuff over and tearing up the place,” he continued. “Police had to come and when they called back in, they said, ‘Cook, she had a bag full of dirty clothes. She was homeless and she didn’t want anyone to know.’” And, as Cook explained, she wasn’t alone.
Shockingly, some of West Side’s other students were also homeless, while others didn’t have any parents. Still more simply didn’t have access to a washing machine at home. This in turn led to a variety of problems, including, said Cook, “Bullying, fights because of the bullying and then attendance. They just wasn’t coming to school.”
So Cook resolved to do something about it – and the idea that the kids could launder their clothes at school was born. It took a lot of planning, but the school was able to open its laundromat, which houses five commercial washers and a similar number of dryers, just in time for the new academic year. Then, when people heard about the story, donations started to pour in.
Cook revealed to nj.com that he even received calls of support from as far away as Serbia, Germany and Norway. But that’s not all – someone a little closer to home was keen to get involved, too. So when DeGeneres heard about Cook’s dedication to his students, she decided to invite him on to her show.
Speaking on the program about the problems his students face, Cook said, “Some of the kids have to travel from two miles or better, and the miles become longer when you have to navigate through the gangs.” It’s clear that the lengths his pupils go to make class have left a big impression on their principal. “When they show up, I’m just so happy that they came,” he confessed.
Moreover, having a place where they can wash their clothes looks like doing wonders for West Side’s school attendance statistics. Amazingly, Cook revealed that 85% of his students were skipping school three to five times a month, some of them because they had nothing clean to wear. The new school laundromat should take care of that. “I’m just so happy that I removed that barrier and now we can get to the root of everything, which is educating the kids,” Cook said on The Ellen Show.
The principal, who grew up in the local area himself, is clearly dedicated to his students. He even refers to the kids as his “babies” – regardless of their age. Cook explained to DeGeneres that this is because he is a fan of the term in loco parentis, which means assuming the responsibilities of a parent when he or she is absent.
What’s more, ensuring that pupils have clean clothes to wear isn’t the only way that West Side helps its pupils. As we’ve seen, the local area has a problem with crime, particularly in the evening between the hours of 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Already struggling to keep a grip on the streets, local police spoke to Cook to ask for his help.
As a result, Cook and a number of other inspirational individuals took matters into their own hands. Realizing that some kids might have nothing to do after school hours, they set up a program called Lights On. This sees the school stay open three evenings a week in the summer until 11:00 p.m., giving local kids a place to hang out and play games or take part in sports. Staffed by volunteers from the community, it’s completely free of charge.
Needless to say, both initiatives have been extremely successful. Indeed, since Lights On started, the school hasn’t lost any other kids to gun violence. And that’s thanks in no small part to Cook’s impressive leadership, something DeGeneres was keen to highlight.
On her show, she told Cook, “My friends at Cheerios are so inspired by what you’re doing to support students, they want you to continue helping young people. So, they’re going to give West Side High School a cheque for $50,000.” And she wasn’t finished yet. Cheerios also wanted to help support Cook’s Lights On program, so they pledged to provide a pantry of food for the students to use for a year.
It’s not difficult to see why Ellen DeGeneres and Cheerios wanted to help. The dedication and hard work of one principal is a lovely thing to witness, especially when he affects the lives of kids who may have otherwise taken a wrong turn. It’s clear respect is a two-way street at West Side High School, as one pupil made clear.
“A person like Cook, you don’t really want to let him down because he’s always got your back,” the teenage boy said. “He don’t let you down, so why let him down?” Another student was keen to highlight Cook’s ability to reach out to all. “When I first came to West Side, [Cook] asked, ‘What does family mean?’” he recounted. “So I’m thinking like, family. Like, brothers and sisters? He was like, ‘Nah. Family stands for forget about me, I love you.’”