Akbar H. Cook may be the principal at Newark’s West Side High School, but he’s anything but typical. Aside from his towering 6’ 7” height, Cook’s swag is always on ten, a trait he attributes to his mother's influence. And as with almost everything he does, there’s a method to Cook’s drip. “I have to be that first person they want to be like,” he says referring to his students. “If I’m not doing it by how I carry myself, then I’m doing wrong by them, and they’re going to start gravitating to the nonsense.”
In addition to being a style role model, Cook is a former Division I baller, who still moonlights as his school’s basketball coach. At West Side High, Cook uses basketball as a teaching metaphor for life. “I don’t call fouls in practice, because when the games come, I want players to know that life ain’t easy,” he explains.
Still, Cook’s impeccable clothing and unique take on coaching are not the most distinctive things about him. Instead, he sets himself apart from other educators by being more than simply a principal. Rather, Cook is a man on a mission to serve his community and transform the lives of his students, who he lovingly refers to as “his babies.”
"I have to be that first person they want to be like. If I’m not doing it by how I carry myself, then I’m doing wrong by them."
Those are no small tasks given that Newark's 2018 crime rate was 1.3 times higher than the U.S. average, meaning 90% of American cities saw less crime than New Jersey’s largest metropolis. But with a sharp mind and a huge heart, Cook is a beacon of light to his students. A proud son of Newark himself, Cook’s journey from student-athlete to educator and community builder has brought the 44-year-old husband and father of three boys full circle, landing him at the heart of an educational movement aimed at building a community of successful students.
Drawing on his own experience growing up in Newark, Cook knows that won’t be easy. "It was always violent,” he says about his hometown. “A lot of stolen cars—at one point in time, we [were] the stolen car capital of the world." To stay off the streets and out of trouble, Cook immersed himself in basketball. "A couple of my friends that I went to school with, we played ball every day. I was never into hanging out anywhere,” Cook recollects. “It was either I'm balling outside with you, or we're balling on the video games.” But Cook didn’t play basketball in a vacuum. He also credits the Boys & Girls club of Newark with providing him with a safe space to grow up and develop. "When I was coming up, it was always, you either rapped, you played ball, or you did the bad stuff,” he says. “Basketball [and] the Boys & Girls Club saved me."
Despite the obstacles that growing up in a crime-riddled environment presented, Cook is grateful that his childhood was also filled with powerful examples of love and service. "Unconditional love started from my grandmother," Cook says about his earliest role model, who just celebrated her 92nd birthday with her family. "She already had six kids, and then all of the grandkids, [but] she still found a way to be an adoptive parent. She took in kids that [weren't] doing good with their families.” Indeed, his grandmother’s example, combined with his mother's innate hustle and drive, as well as support from his late Auntie Carolyn and his Auntie Diane, both of whom worked in education, started Cook on his path to becoming an educator with a calling.
In addition to his family mentors, the time Cook put in on the basketball court shaped his future. Coming out of high school, Cook earned a basketball scholarship to St. Catherine College in Kentucky, where he got his associates degree, before transferring to finish his education—and hoops career—at Florida Atlantic University, a Division I school where he also met his wife. But the transition was difficult.
"It was like I was a freshman all over again,” Cook recalls. “I ended up on academic probation so many hard times. I remember my last year, about to graduate, and my aunt and my uncle passed. I just had my son. I was doing bad, man."
"I don’t call fouls in practice, because when the games come, I want players to know that life ain’t easy."
Ultimately, Cook pushed through, relying on his aunts Carolyn and Diane for motivation, eventually earning a Bachelor Degree in Education from Florida Atlantic University and a Master’s Degree in Administration from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City.
Cook says his aunts showed him an example of what his life could be that continues to inspire him. "The things that I do now are to show [my aunts] that I'm the man they wanted me to be,” he says. “And I'm never going to be the weakest link in my family or to these kids.”
Cook says he also believes that “it takes a village to raise a child.” And since taking over as the principal at West Side High three years ago, he's made it his mission to build a village within his school, something he means as more than a metaphor. "I want my whole first floor to look like a mall,” Cook says, noting that he’s already added a bank, a cleaners, and a graphic arts center to his school, with plans to open student-run stores as well. And his entrepreneurial vision doesn’t stop there. Cook is even working with his students to bring their own products to market. “We going to have everything you can name. I got my own hot sauce,” he explains. “We already have that white label. It’s patched up and ready to go.”
That bold vision has attracted big time support. Capital One has had a branch in Cook’s school for more than ten years, inviting every student to start an account with just $1, allowing them to begin to learn financial literacy. But that’s just the beginning. West Side High students can also learn about clothing design and branding from Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash or study the music business with hip-hop producer Laze E. Laze of M.O.P. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey even visited Cook’s school in May 2019, throwing the students a pizza party and donating half a million dollars in educational support.
Cook says the media coverage he’s received from working with such big name benefactors has been huge. Now, West Side High is a nationally-recognized template for what community schools can look like. Even better, it’s allowed him to secure new partnerships with prestigious institutions like Google, LinkedIn, and Rutgers’ Business School. He’s even had the opportunity to speak with rapper and entrepreneur Kanye West about his work and a possible partnership.
True to all he’s accomplished, Cook adheres to a “don’t talk about it, be about it” mindset. That’s largely due to the fact that he knows many of his students face danger on a daily basis. Since last March, tragic gun violence has affected two of Cook’s students, injuring one and killing another.
"I'm never going to be the weakest link in my family or to these kids.”
“I had a young lady who just graduated. She was getting a full scholarship to an HBCU. She got shot in the head twice,” Cook says. “Baby girl lived, and it’s looking like a full recovery.” But another of Cook’s students wasn’t so lucky, with the principal noting a 17-year-old male recently passed away from gunshot wounds. “We don’t ever want to see a kid in the streets, but he was out late at night,” Cook says, anguishing over how his school’s closure due to covid-19 has stripped many students of the very routines that protect them. “He wouldn’t have been out there if he was with us, man,” Cook sighs.
While covid-related closures may be a necessary hardship, Cook does have a vital message for elected officials, including the man slated to be the next president of the United States. “Education in America needs to change, because we are not sparking the intrinsic motivation of students,” he says. “And educators are essential workers. There should be no reason that teachers are making $30,000 and got to take odd jobs.”
For Cook’s students and private sector partners, that clarity of focus is inspirational. But for Cook, it’s his all-encompassing life’s mission. “All schools should be the village,” he says. “It’s no more neighborhood school. Where I’m from, I want to be that pillar in my community. I want to be that oasis in the land of despair for my babies.”
To that end, Cook doesn’t take breaks for holidays. Last year, he and his school donated 5,000 coats to community members in need. This year, Cook says he plans to donate 400 Christmas trees to people in Newark.
To West Side High and greater Newark, Cook’s charitable actions only prove his belief that there’s no time to waste.
“Your time, your talent, and your treasures” are the most valuable gifts you can give to the world, he says. Those aren’t mere words, either. Cook always leads by example, inspiring his students to be the best people they can be. “I’m not teaching my kids to be victims,” he says. “I’m teaching them to own up.”
That may be a hard lesson to learn, but with Cook’s firm, loving guidance, it’s definitely working.
For information on Akbar H. Cook and his upcoming book, Focus on the Love: A Transformative Approach to Organizational Leadership, click here.