How One Principal Reduced Bullying At His School With A Washing Machine And Dryer

"That started this whole chain of good things to come."

Just a few weeks into his job as principal of West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, Akbar Cook had already made some major changes to help students succeed. 

In a segment on The Ellen Show, Cook — who served as the school's vice principal for four years before stepping into his new role — explains how many of his students were unable to wash their clothes at home because they were homeless or because of their parents' financial circumstances. As a result, kids were being bullied for their dirty clothes, starting fights, and missing school. In fact, 85 percent of his students were staying home three to five times a month, Cook says. 

"Two years ago, we had a situation where a young lady was coming into school and while the security guard was getting ready to go through her bag, she took a full bottle of water ... and hurled it at the security guard's face. She started kicking stuff over, and tearing up the place, and the police had to come. And when they called me back in, they said, 'Cook, she had a bag full of dirty clothes, and she was homeless, and she didn't want anyone to know,' " he explains. 


So Cook decided to do something about it. Over two years ago, during an advisory council meeting of the MCJ Amelior Foundation, Cook explained his students' situation, reports. The PSEG Foundation then offered a grant that would provide the school with five washing machines and five dryers, and create a laundry facility. Now, Cook tells DeGeneres, the facility became ready just in time for the school year. 

"And that started this whole chain of good things to come," Cook says. "We are really laying the foundation for what a community school looks like. And what better way to change the world than in a school. Nothing beats that."

"We take things for granted that are easy for us. [Cook] doesn't," the former president of The PSEG Foundation, Ellen Lambert, tells "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."

Dirty clothes and their association with bullying and poor attendance are problems facing other schools, too. In 2015, Whirlpool launched its Whirlpool Care Counts program, offering washers and dryers to schools in need. The first year of the program helped 17 schools in two school districts, Today reports

"They found that in that year, 93 percent of participating students increased their attendance after they were provided with clean clothes, with at-risk students attending almost two more weeks of school than the year before. Teachers in the schools surveyed said they saw dramatic increases in classroom and extracurricular participation as well as student motivation."

A sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, told Business Insider in 2016 that the promising results of the Whirlpool program is likely for two reasons: 

"The direct effects would be that the students are not embarrassed to come to school because they have clean clothes," Richard Arum, dean of UCI's School of Education, said. "The indirect mechanism would be that the program suggests to them that the larger society cares about their schooling."

Whirlpool reports that from 2016-2017, its program resulted in 86 percent of high-risk students — those missing 15 or more days during the school year — increasing their attendance. 

In addition to the laundry facility, Cook has also started a program called Lights On at the school, which provides students with a safe space to stay during dangerous hours of the night. Since starting it, Cook hasn't lost any more students to gun violence. 

"I just try to give so much love," Cook tells DeGeneres near the end of his interview. "I'm just so happy to lead kids that look like me ... that sound like me. I'm from the area, so I was so happy when I got the opportunity to lead them. I'm just so happy." 

Be sure to check out Cook's full story in the video below — including the surprise he gets from DeGeneres and a sponsor — and visit Whirlpool's Care Counts program to donate to this worthy cause


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