One principal started a movement at his school.

Students at West Side High school in Newark, New Jersey were dropping like flies. All principal Akbar Cook knew was that 85% of his students were chronically absent, and he had no clue why.

It was only when he picked up the phone to call their homes that he found out why, and it shocked him. Students were staying home not due to drugs or guns, but being teased over their dirty clothes.

Student Nasirr Cameron told CBS Philly that the teasing made classes toxic. 

“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,” he said.

The tipping point for Cook came when students were bullying other students on social media, sharing pictures of their dirty collars online.

With the motivation to act, he came up with a novel idea to clean up the situation.

How a School Principal Changed a Culture

For his plan to work, Cook would need the school’s football locker room and a couple of dollars. With the locker room secure, Cook took his case to the PSEG Foundation, whose main mission is to give access to clean, affordable energy to communities.

Cook applied and received a $20,000 grant request from them. With that, he could put into motion his plan to clean up West Side High, literally. With the grant, he bought 5 washers and 5 dryers to ensure clean clothes for all 750 students.

After school, students would come to the converted locker room-turned-laundromat. As some students didn’t know how to do laundry, they had an adult around to help. This made sure that every student could come to class with dignity and free from teasing.

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Student Kalim Harvey-Belcher, who missed class due to dirty uniforms, said that washing is a double win for students.

“With the laundromat, it’ll be a benefit to students because they’re still getting their education and they’re getting their clothes cleaned. You can come to school smelling like Tide every day.”

Even better than the scent was the stats, as attendance rose 10% after the program was rolled out.

How a School Principal Showed That We All Deserve a Clean Slate

As word of Cook’s initiative spread, he said that “the response has been amazing.” Donations of laundry and detergent have come from across the country.

This isn’t Cook’s only awesome initiative. After seeing his students die from gun violence every summer, he created the ‘Lights On’ program. Every Friday evening, the school opens its doors to everyone as a safe space for kids to play and be kids while staying off the streets. “I needed to find a way to save them,” Cook said.

That’s just the start. Cook’s laundry idea was such a success, he created ‘Cook Educational Solutions’ to help other schools deliver his initiatives. He said that he hopes that other schools are moved to act.

“This is a real problem in other schools,” he said. “Hopefully, people can see this as an example of what to do.”

In many ways, Cook’s clean laundry success is saving lives. The more kids in class, the better their chances to escape poverty and violence. The better their chances, the bigger impact they can make on others. The bigger than impact, the better our world will be.

All they need is the same opportunity as others, and clean clothes are a start. Then, we just have to rinse and repeat.


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