Principal Akbar Cook of Newark’s West Side High School gained national recognition for taking action after noticing students being bullied for dirty clothes. He installed five pairs of washers and dryers in the school so kids could do their laundry. WBGO’s Ang Santos stopped by West Side High to talk with Principal Cook, who says there’s been no shortage of support since the story aired on NBC’s The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Ang Santos: That must have been some moment for you? The $50,000 check.
Akbar Cook: It was surreal being there in Burbank, California and just getting it. I thought I would be there as one of the new faces of urban education, but wow. I got $50,000 out of it for my babies so that was awesome.
AS: We’re here with Akbar Cook, He’s the principal of West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal.
AC: Thank you for having me.
AS: This washer and dryer initiative really took on a life of its own, with an outpouring of donations to the school. What kind of impact has it had on your students?
AC: We always get the short end of the stick. West Side, we’re located right on a graveyard. The kids feel some type of way coming to school and they don’t normally feel the love. My staff, we came in with nothing but love and then all of the love that has been pouring in from all over the world. I can’t name a country that hasn’t sent us donations. They feel loved and they’re happy that they’re being shown in a different light.
AS: Ellen DeGeneres and people from all over the world aren’t the only people who’ve been sending you different things from deodorant to detergent. You’ve also found community partners, local?
AC: Absolutely. I can’t speak enough about my alumni association. They created a platform for me to be able to put my arm around these babies and do some amazing work. Newark Public Schools. You have a new principal that is trying to do things that have never been done before. My superintendent Roger Leon has been behind me every step of the way. Local Boys & Girls Clubs, the New Jersey Food Bank. There’re countless others who have helped me out. My community has been right behind us the whole way.
AS: If I’m not mistaken, this whole entire initiative with the washers and dryers began with another initiative you have here at West Side.
AC: We have a “Light’s On” program here. The “Light’s On” program was started to create a safe place for kids during the summer. I was losing kids to gun violence, so I wanted to create a space for them to be kids. It’s from 6pm-11pm Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the summer. During the school year we do it on Friday night from 6pm-11pm. “Light’s On” pretty much put it in a light where we became the community school. Then when you start knocking down barriers such as bullying, that’s where the laundromat initiative came in. I couldn’t have kids being home because they didn’t have clean clothes, or they didn’t want to come to school because they were being bullied because of the dirty clothes. We removed that barrier with PSE&G and my alumni association. The rest is history.
AS: Walking around these hallways, you command some respect from your students. It’s almost like their friends of yours as opposed to their principal. I remember when I was in school it was ‘the principal is coming down the hall, look the other way.’ It’s the total opposite with your students.
AC: When I got hired initially, they wanted this big black man to be a drill sergeant. That’s not who I was. I led with love. It took me a few years to find myself, but once I found my stride I lead with love. These kids know that I'll be the first one to drop the hammer, but they also know I’ll be the first to pick them up if they fall. You have to lead with love in everything you do. Once you give it you’ll get it in return. That’s what I do, and I’ve been successful at it.
AS: How have parents reacted to all this? It’s garnered a lot of attention.
AC: The parents that are involved welcome all of the attention and the products we have. But we initially started this because we had a large population that was going without. They were parentified and taking care of younger siblings and their children. So, I am their parent. In the event that the parent isn’t there, I am their parent. I take that on and so do my staff.
AS: Is the washer and dryer installation something you would recommend other schools to do? If so, what steps should they take to get it done?
AC: Everyone doesn’t have the West Side Alumni Association that has been powerful in helping us out with some of these initiatives that we have. I spoke with my superintendent yesterday and we want to figure out how to work with school funds to set it up where other kids can have washers and dryers. I think every high school should have at least one washer and dryer that can use throughout the course of the day. We’re trying to be at the forefront of trying to figure out what other schools can do so we won’t be the only school here. I think the next school up is Weequahic High School in the south ward. They are already starting to purchase washers and dryers. We’ll be shipping over some of this abundance of laundry detergent that I have to them so they can start as well.
AS: Talking numbers here. Laundry detergent. What do you think? How many bottles of detergent, pods, bottles of bleach? An approximate number.
AC: It’s countless. I have five to seven years’ worth just for my school to use. We have rooms I didn’t even show you. It’s not going to stop. I had to tell the population to send us toiletries now because my girls are going without feminine products. My guys are going without deodorant and soap. We had to switch gears a bit because we had so much laundry detergent. We can supply the tri-state area for sure.
AS: Beside Newark’s school district, have you had any others in the state or outside of the state who heard your story and asked for some advice.
AC: I just came back from Houston. I was speaking to a local community there about how they can do some of these initiatives. I’m going out to Vegas next week to speak to the Las Vegas school district about incorporating some of these. I have been going around to states, but also talking to people all around the world. I met with some young ladies from India and they are trying to do it there. The reach has been amazing to where the Washington Redskins bought their local school districts some washers and dryers. The impact has been amazing. I’m happy that I was at the forefront of it.
AS: With all of this going on, do you have any other lingering projects at West Side that you’d like to take care of?
AC: Now that the word is getting out, it’s kinda like ‘don’t forget about my high school babies.’ I think now we have to go onto diplomas. I think everyone puts so much onus on the high school diploma. I tell my kids that it’s nothing but wall art for your parents. You cannot go out there and get a living wage with that piece of paper. Kids think they are at the finish line and it is not. It’s just the beginning of your life. If I could start to get the word out to stop putting so much prestige on the high school diploma when a minimum wage job is waiting for you at the end. I think that’s something America needs to step up and figure out. Other countries have secondary education for cheaper than what we are doing. I want to be at the forefront of that. I’m trying to find a living wage for my babies while not putting so much prestige on the high school diploma.
AS: Could you ever have imagined all of this turning out this way when you decided to put a laundromat in the school.
AC: I honestly thought it would be on the cover of Newsweek or Time but not just with me. I was thinking other educators that are doing amazing things in urban education across the globe would be on the cover. I never thought I’d be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show or top five on CNN last week of stories that change the way people think. So, no, I am very humbled by the exposure but at the same time just happy that my babies are getting what they need to be successful.