Open Windows

The most important thing
we give children
is love.

In Conversation

AKBAR COOK

Principal, West Side High School, USA

January 1st, 2021

 

Principal Akbar Cook's resolve and audacious persuasiveness inspires children to aim for a better quality of life.  At West Side High School, New Jersey [USA], Principal Cook has created an extension of himself—a place of equality and togetherness, where trust is invested in children. It's no wonder, Principal Cook's outlook and involvement with children is a much sought after signature.

 

What did having access to school as a child mean to you? And how have your childhood experiences shaped you as an individual?

My grandmother was a foster parent to disadvantaged youth, and my two aunts were educators. Apart from my aunts, only an uncle of mine went to college. So we placed significant value on education, which was a means to better my situation.  I put great emphasis on going to college and did well in academics and sports.  I honed a lot of my skills outside my single-parent home, improving my craft as an athlete, and I ended up with a full college scholarship.

My babies [the students at West Side High School] have to struggle with feeding themselves and their siblings versus waiting on the payday of education; I didn’t have these barriers. Young children have to make decisions at an early age on taking care of their mother’s or/and sisters who might be on the streets, or unavailable. So I fully understand when children have to forgo college and enter a career.

My life’s mission is to make sure that we follow these babies until they are gainfully employed.

Apart from mainstream education, from where have you procured profound education?

I believe I have received the most profound education from my students. At 15, I started working at a boys and girls camp called Life Camp, in New Jersey. I noticed then that I had a rapport with students, and it wasn’t because I was a big, black, strong guy—it was more so because I understood the children, talked the way they spoke, and led with love.

The relationship I developed with the students—as a camp counsellor over the years (and I am still with the camp)—was an indicator that I could have a significant impact on others’ lives.

 

How does poverty impact the academic success of children?

First and foremost, poverty impacts school attendance.

For instance, if children don’t have the right means to get to school, they have to walk as far as four miles; if they get bus tickets up to two and a half miles away from school, children still have to walk two miles in inclement weather. And some children opt out. Factors such as having to take care of siblings or being a young parent themselves can also come in the way of children achieving academic success.

 

Truancy is associated with poverty, and the longer a child stays away from school, the bleaker are the chances for the child to resume school. What are the early signs of school non–attendance that eventually leads to school absenteeism?

The early signs of truancy start in elementary school. If students are not reading on a third-grade level by third-grade or the latest by fifth grade, they won’t get to high school.  If the children can’t function with reading and writing, and arithmetic to get between pivotal grade levels, I won’t see them at school.  And if the children do move to high school, they won’t be able to function. The girls fare better than the boys—not only do the boys have to deal with peer pressure, they are expected to be the man of the house, provide for the family and siblings.

 

How do you and West Side High School support children from poor economic backgrounds?

The most important thing we give children is love.

And then, when children present their barriers, it’s up to us adults to understand them. If I get a parent in their homes, it’s a plus, but I don’t look for it; I take that a parent won’t be involved. So I figure out ways to help my babies become successful, giving them strong parental support.

At my community school, we think outside the box to get the children across the finish line. However, we have taken it a step further—to stay with these babies until they are gainfully employed, earning a wage because getting them across the finish line doesn’t mean they will succeed once they leave the doors of my school. I expect other schools to think outside the box and do whatever they can to make kids successful.

 

In contrast to situations where children are punished for truancy, you identify with children and help them fix deeper issues to alleviate absenteeism.

While dealing with truancy, we encounter a cohort of kids who break the rules—chilling with their friends at the corner store, not caring about classes. On the other hand, we have students who have to drop off their siblings or their own child at school, and as a result, they end up missing school. When we see the narrative, we can better sense what the child needs to be successful.

 

Did your undertaking—installing in-house washing machines and dryers—require specific infrastructure? And can other schools take on similar projects?

The biggest concern was finding the right space to house the washing machines and dryers, as they require substantial power. Along with low-cost detergent (We are blessed to have received laundry detergent from some big companies.), we had to assign spaces to house the student’s clothes (while they attend school). Once the system was in place, we involved caring, non-judgmental adults to develop a washing schedule for children.  We then reached out to the parents, letting them know they could send their babies to school with their soiled clothes. Initially, it takes the bravest students to move past the barriers of bullying to use the laundry facilities.

Every school can install in-house washing machines and dryers; they need to take the time and allocate the funds appropriately, knowing the impact such an undertaking will have on the lives of children.

 

You mention the generosity of companies that has resulted in a surplus supply of resources. How do you teach children to be mindful consumers?

We learnt mindfulness on the fly. Initially, some children didn’t have the life skills to wash clothes; as a result, they would use far more detergent for a wash load or use too many dryer sheets. So we introduced an adult to oversee the laundromat who teaches children to use the facility.

And there is a prerequisite to using the laundry facility—the children have to attend a biology class—a typical wash load takes an hour and fifteen minutes, which is a whole class period—and as the child learns about stem cells, his/her clothes get washed. The teacher doubles as a life skill coach and a biology educator.

 

How does your reform initiative, the Lights On program, help children?

We came up with the Lights On program because we were losing kids to gun violence.  My first bout with death was finding a dead lady in an abandoned building. Later that year, I lost another student to a brutal murder. Death became the new normal. It was the death of a young man in a drive-by shooting that led me to tell my alumni association that I wasn’t going to go through another summer watching my kids get slaughtered; I wanted to prevent crimes by providing boys and girls a safe place during peak crime time—6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.  At the Lights On program, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, children could get a hot meal, and to encourage kids to be kids, we introduced basketball and jump rope along with board games and video games.

The Lights On program held its own for a while, and then Barry Carter, a young man who writes for the local newspaper put the word out about the Lights On program taking the number of participants from approximately 50 to 150 participants that summer. It was a beautiful summer with no acts of violence. But on the last day of the program, a street bullet killed a lady who had given me a high five earlier that day, at the celebrations. This incident made me realize that we needed to do something during the school year (not just in the summer), so we started with Friday nights during the school year, introducing various classes, to the point that we were receiving 350 participants a night; it is beautiful.  We started two school years ago, and we haven’t lost any more kids to violence–because we didn’t just sit back and watch our kids get slaughtered; we addressed the situation.

 

A particular segment of society labels education and being well-spoken as elitist.

Labelling is cultural. When I was growing up, if you’d talk proper, you were considered white, and if you spoke with slang, you were considered hood.  Students need to know that they have to survive in two worlds—in corporate America to earn a wage and in their neighborhood—and each world requires them to talk a certain way.

 

How would you like to see the model of education evolve in America?

First, the new urban education has to focus on individual students to prepare them for society.

Second, education costs must be lowered.

No one wants to attend four years of school and end up with a hundred-thousand-dollar bill. Some parents can put aside money for their children’s education, but my babies come from nothing, and my undocumented students can’t get into any college.

 

We expect a great deal from teachers, yet teachers are not bestowed with the glory and salaries they deserve. Why?

I have no idea.  As a school principal, it is difficult for me to find the best talent. We want to get the brightest minds, but how do you tell a child who is brilliant in science and engineering that they can be a teacher when they can make triple as an engineer.  We have individuals who went into education for the right reasons, but we now also have people who were once in business or the corporate sector returning to teaching.  I know the system has to change it, but I don’t think it will be in my lifetime.

 

What qualities of yours draw children to you?

I look and sound like my students, and I am a cool guy.

 

[Laughter]

I believe students feel my love. My mom was probably the toughest person in my life, but she was also the most loving.  Similarly, like a parent, where I can suspend a child for several days, I will also take him home and feed him, trying to remove his barriers. I respect the grace of God and the test of time that has enabled me to develop a happy disposition. And I continue to build by hiring expansive individuals with “Match my Flight”, which means match my passion and willingness to do whatever possible for underprivileged children.

 

What gives you the impetus to shape your dreams?

I am an Aquarian, and Aquarians are dreamers. Moreover, I am blessed to have a support system in my alumni that allows me to bring my dreams to fruition. It took my alumni $20,000 to fund the Lights On program.

I am a dreamer, but you need a support system.

And I am blessed work with wonderful children.

Learn more about Principal Akbar Cook.

 

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