NEWARK, NJ - West Side High School Principal Akbar Cook has been receiving national attention for creating a school-based laundromat and Lights On an extracurricular program that has been helping students and transforming school culture at West Side.
State lawmakers participated in a roundtable discussion with students and Newark Board of Education members at West Side High School on Monday morning where Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin privately presented Cook with a $500 check toward a refrigerator for the school to assist with storing food for West Side students and the Lights On program.
When Cook first came to West Side, he had lost three students to gun violence. Watching the news at home and seeing bad things that seemed to spike during the summer, he knew that he needed to create something for the kids.
Lights On was a direct response to gun violence. Since then, no more students have died from gun violence, but the program has evolved into something greater.
“This created a safe place where I know that I can feed them with the Community Food Bank’s help and we’ve been rocking and rolling,” Cook said. He is excited for the program going into its fourth summer and the praise that it’s been getting. “Kids are being consistent and we’ve just been loving on them and making sure they have a safe space to be,” Cook said.
What started off as a small summer program, Lights On grew to have hundreds of students every Friday. Cook credited his team of staff, dedicated volunteers, and support from the Newark Public School district for making it all possible.
The program will be offered three nights a week over the summer.
“When I think about the culture at West Side High School, it’s hard to say in words,” Jaevon Lawrence said. The senior class valediction who will be attending Rutgers-Newark as an Honors, Living, and Learning Community Scholar, couldn't find the perfect words for how Principal Cooks make students feel. “It’s more like we’re just a big family,” he said.
Students, board members, and teachers said that the impact Principal Cook has on the students and staff have been tremendous.
Jackly Nazaire has been teaching in Newark for 14 years and is nearing the end of his first year as a science teacher at West Side. He said that because of the commitment, love, and passion from Principal Cook, it trickles down to teachers to bring out the best in students.
Just last week, a team of West Side student's competed in the district's STEM expo and earned first place for a science project. A team also won third place in the mathematics category. This was the first time that West Side earned a top title in any academic intercity competition.
When Jerome Hancock started teaching at West Side, he received negative comments about his choice. Now in his fifth year teaching mathematics, Hancock believes the image of the school is starting to change.
“We’ve seen the second highest increase in our scores in Mathematics. We’re making strides and we’re making progress,” Hancock said.
Although the Lights On program creates a safe place for students to come to on Friday night, one student wanted to make it clear that running from the streets of Newark is not the primary reason why kids come to the program.
Josyeln Ocasio, a junior at West Side, frequently asks her friends if they are going to the program. She said that the program isn’t just a safe alternative, but a place where students can be themselves.
“I don’t believe that it’s because we have nowhere to go,” Ocasio said. “I believe they come because it's somewhere they want to be.”