Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child – or in the case of these students – a school. When Akbar Cook – a vice principal for the West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey – started at his job he knew he was finally in a position to make a real change in his students’ lives, and he did. But probably no one, including Mr. Cook himself, could imagine how far his impact would really go. His idea of introducing a laundry room to the high school was so successful, it started a snowball of change. This week, Mr. Cook piloted a program called Cook Educational Solutions, intended to help out other schools implement his fruitful initiatives.

More info: West Side Lights On

High school principal Akbar Cook noticed his students were being bullied for their dirty clothes

Image credits: Akbar Cook

When Mr. Cook became a vice principal at West Side, he was concerned with the growing problem of bullying, which was causing students to skip school. The problem was so dire that almost 85 percent of the students had been reported skipping over the past few years. Akbar found out that many of the youngsters at West Side High School couldn’t afford washing their uniforms, so they were choosing to stay at home rather than coming to school dirty only to be ridiculed by their peers. Bullies would snap pictures of their classmate’s dirty collars or stained pants and post them to social media. The principal also recalled an incident back in 2016 where a security officer tried to check one girl’s bag and was met with screams and a fight not to let him see what it contained. Later authorities found out that she was carrying her dirty clothes in the bag because she was temporarily homeless and was afraid people would find out. “She was fighting for her pride,” Mr. Cook later explained to the media.

He installed washing and drying machines at the school and student attendance rose by 10%

Image credits: CBS News

Having recognized the problem, Mr. Cook approached it by going straight to the root. He applied for a $20,000 grant for the appliances – five washing machines and five dryers – from the MCJ Amelior Foundation. The school was provided with the necessary funds and the football locker room was converted into a laundry room where kids could come in and have their clothes washed. But the initiative didn’t end there – while the students wait for their laundry, in an adjacent room called the Makerspace, a teacher is assigned before and after school to work with students on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) projects and explore their academic interests.

Cook has led other initiatives to address other grave issues in his school

Image credits: catresa.mcghee

However, some deep-rooted problems exist in the Newark community, that are much more alarming than bullying – and the principal is driven to tackle them as well. Back in 2014, according to Akbar, every summer two or three of his students would get killed due to gun violence in the streets. He recalls a heartbreaking moment when one of his students was found in a trash can, just behind the school building. “I needed to find a way to save them,” Akbar told the media last year.

The principal introduced the Lights Out program which focuses on keeping youth out of the streets

Image credits: wscampus

Affected by the loss of so many young lives, Akbar introduced the Lights On program. It is intended to create a safe space for kids so that they won’t have to spend time on the streets and turn towards negative influences. The inspiration for the concept came from Akbar’s childhood, when he was always at the West Side Boys and Girls Club. Akbar figured the gym in the school could be their own version of a community haven. During the school year, the doors are open for everyone on Fridays from 6pm to 11pm. During the summer, people are welcomed on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, from 6pm to 11pm. The community members can play basketball, ping-pong, board games, X-box or PlayStaytion games, dance, learn to sew, design, do make-up and many more activities. The students also get free hot meals, so they don’t go home with empty stomachs. Thanks to donations from the community and alumni, the program has been able to thrive year after year.

The educator appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show twice where he received huge donations

Image credits: Akbar Cook

Due to the exposure on various social media platforms, the programs introduced by Principal Cook have been recognized all across the country and now many other schools are implementing his initiatives as well. This week he piloted a program called Cook Educational Solutions which is intended to help out schools in other communities to tackle the problems of bullying, poor attendance and the absence of after-school activities. Akbar Cook was also invited by Ellen Degeneres twice now to share his story and help to spread awareness about the real situation in some urban schools. The last time he went, he received a $50,000 donation to further carry out and develop his projects.

People on the internet have praised Akbar for his ingenious programs to deal with these serious problems

In case you’re interested in chipping in for Principal Cook and his initiatives or even volunteering for the Lights On program, you can find all the necessary information by following this link.