When Akbar Cook started as vice principal four years ago at West Side High School in Newark, the situation was dire. Cook, 42, said the school was seeing two or three kids every summer killed because of gun violence. He remembered one instance in which the body of one of his students was found in a trash can behind a building.
“I needed to find a way to save them,” Cook told The Washington Post. “It really affected me having my kids killed.”
It wasn’t just violence that was plaguing the school. Two years ago, a 16-year-old student entered through the school’s metal detectors. As security stopped to check her bag, Cook said she argued with the men and threw her water at them. She didn’t want anyone to see what was inside her bag. After the cops came to see what was happening, they looked in the student’s bag and found something unexpected: dirty underwear and clothes.
“She was homeless that weekend and didn’t want anyone to know,” Cook said.
Similar instances have become all too regular at West Side, said Cook, now the school’s principal. As a result, Cook said, about 85 percent of students who attend the school are chronically absent, with students missing three to five days a month. Once Cook and school administrators started calling the homes of the students to figure out why they were often not at school, they discovered that one of the main reasons for their absences was that they were being teased for showing up in filthy, stained clothes.
“I’ve seen kids in the back of the class talk about kids in the front of the class and how they smell and how their clothes look dirty,” student Nasirr Cameron told CBS Philly.
When Cook saw the bullying trickle over to social media, it was a sign that the school of 750 students needed to do whatever it could to bridge the divide between those who could and could not afford to wash their clothes, Cook said. He knew the culture needed to change.
“They were posting on Snapchat and Instagram about how their classmates were coming to school with dirty clothes on, like posting a pic of a student’s dirty collar,” Cook said. “I knew we had to do something.”
That something amounted to five washers and five dryers in the school’s football locker room. When Cook relayed this plea to address the divide, it got the attention of the PSEG Foundation, sponsored by the energy firm Public Service Electric and Gas Co. In 2016, Cook applied for a $20,000 grant from the PSEG Foundation, which has contributed $1.5 million in funding to the Sustainable Jersey grants program for municipalities and schools, according to SNJ Today. Soon enough, the grant was accepted for the school to get its washers and dryers, as well as materials to help turn the locker room into a mini laundromat.
Two years later, the laundry room is complete. Starting Aug. 27, students will have access after school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with an adult staff member there at all times.
“Some kids don’t know how to do laundry,” Cook said, recalling one instance in which a young man put too much detergent in a load. “We have to teach some of them how to do that.”
The attention paid to the situation at West Side has not gone unnoticed by the community and school leaders involved in the push for clean clothes.
“We take things for granted that are easy for us. [Cook] doesn’t,” Ellen Lambert, retired president of the PSEG Foundation, told NJ.com. “You want everyone to succeed, especially young people. He finds those places where success doesn’t happen and he figures out why and he goes after it.”
Students are already looking forward to the change.
“With the laundromat, it’ll be a benefit to students because they’re still getting their education and they’re getting their clothes cleaned,” student Kalim Harvey-Belcher told NJ.com, adding that he missed a few days last year because of an unclean uniform. “You can come to school smelling like Tide every day.”
West Side High’s jump into clean clothes is the most recent example of schools using washers and dryers to make a difference in students’ lives. In 2015, appliance maker Whirlpool provided them to students across two California and Illinois school districts through its Care Counts program. According to Whirlpool, more than 90 percent of tracked students in the program improved their attendance by six additional days compared with the previous academic year. Teachers surveyed in the pilot program said 95 percent of participants interacted with peers and enjoyed school more than before.
Since word got out about West Side’s laundry facility, Cook told The Post that “the response has been amazing,” as donations of laundry detergent have been pouring in from all over the state and country. The school will be celebrating the opening of the laundry room on Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
With school starting Sept. 4, Cook said they have enough supplies to last them at least three months. He’s hopeful that the program can last as long as possible and serve as a blueprint for other schools with students facing a similar dilemma: Go to school in dirty clothes or don’t go to school at all.
“This is a real problem in other schools,” Cook said. “Hopefully, people can see this as an example of what to do.”