This month’s Homegrown Hero is Akbar Cook, Principal of West Side High School. We caught up with him to know his story about his career and how his working routine has changed since the pandemic started. We thank Principal Cook for all his efforts and for inspiring our club with his acts. This year’s initiative includes giving $1,000 to a charity of our Homegrown Hero’s choice, and for this month, Principal Cook selected Jersey Cares.
Tell me about your career and what inspires you every day?
I am a Principal in an urban neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. We service approximately 650 kids a year. 100 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Most of the students we service are socio-economically disadvantaged and come from poverty.
Growing up and seeing most of my friends succumb to the shackles of poverty and not rise above their circumstances inspires me. Their difficult situations drove me to come back to my community and to work on the front lines to empower the youth. There are countless kids like me that can’t get out and succeed. Therefore, one must dive right in and prepare to get “down and dirty.” Once you’re in the fight, I refuse to be the weakest link. I can’t let these kids down. I have to go undefeated, because if I don’t, I can lose a kid’s life. My students are counting on us. In some instances, we’re all they have! Once you’re truly vested and all parties are on the same page, you become their champion.
How much have your job duties changed since the pandemic started?
My job duties have changed as a result of the pandemic. The digital divide was our reality before the pandemic hit. We have converted to virtual learning. Most students across the world view school as relief from what goes on in their homes. In some instances, school may provide the only structure in their lives. Fast forward, Covid forced us to shut down access to the one place that gave them solace. So now we thrust them back into an environment that they wanted to escape only to find out that the distractions from home are proving to be a far greater challenge than we expected. I have to give props to my Superintendent, Roger Leon, because his adaptive leadership gave Principals the autonomy to do right by their individual buildings. So now attendance is up and we’re finding innovative ways to tackle the systemic learning loss that the entire world is facing.
What’s the biggest lesson/s you’ve learned during this time period?
Biggest lesson learned is that students suffer without social interaction and in-person adult support. I’ve learned that life is even more valuable during these troubled times. Life is shorter than I even once noticed pre-Covid and the decreasing mortality ages are an example of that. Then there’s death, there were some iconic deaths this year. I’ve lost friends and family as well. To me, it didn’t have to be that way. I'm all for living every day because we die once, but people are working harder, not smarter. We grew up watching movies detailing how the human race comes together to defeat various global threats, who would have thought that disbelief and recreation would cause so many deaths? This movie is turning out to be a horror flick. So please wear a mask and save a life. With that being said, there are also some successes to be celebrated. I made sure that I’m a better man than I was before Covid. I have some amazing opportunities on the horizon and can’t wait for you to see. It’s like I'm at the starting block again. I’m ready to run through a brick wall to make things happen for my students, friends and family. Lastly, I’m one dose of the vaccine down with one more to go while I’m preparing to show the world what a real “Change Agent” looks like in 2021.