NEWARK, N.J. — "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 confident 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.
"When we got it, I ain't gonna lie, I was kind of scared to bring my clothes over. But I just shrugged it off and when I went to Cook I asked him, 'Can I use the laundromat?' He was like, 'No, you good, we are nothing but family,'" Singleton said.
Cook, who grew up in Newark, also started a program called "Lights On." He opens his school from 6:00 to 11 p.m. on Fridays during the school year and three nights a week in the summer.
"My babies are taking care of their younger siblings. Their parents are either working hard and just taking these odd jobs, or the parents are not there at all," Cook said.
The kids use the gym, dance, and are fed warm meals. It's a long way from what West Side was just a few years ago.
"School was fighting every day, getting kicked out," Singleton said.
"People were getting killed," Denny said.
"Cook made a big impact on West Side," Singleton added.
It might seem hard to believe that one person could clean up a school and a whole neighborhood. But in Newark, the proof is in the principal.
"This is selfless work that we do. No one goes into education thinking they are going to get rich," Cook said.
But that doesn't mean he's not satisfied with what he's doing.
"I have a gold medal around my heart from the love that the kids give back to me and just the families in the community are taking it one step further," he said.