Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Helping poor kids feel safe and succeed

West Side High School in Newark, NJ, serves about 700 students, mostly low-income African-Americans. The school has struggled with chronic absenteeism, tardiness and violence. Three years ago, a neighborhood girl was shot to death. So Principal Akbar Cook started the  "Lights On" program where the school hosts Friday night parties, giving students someplace safe to go from 6 until 11 p.m. They can play basketball, shoot pool, play video games and even record music. When Cook discovered that some kids skipped school because they were bullied about wearing dirty clothes, he spent two years lobbying for a grant and was finally able to convert the football team's locker room into a free, on-campus laundromat with commercial grade machines and free soap.

Leaders like Cook say they have to compete for state money and attention with the growing number of charter schools in Newark. But that changed recently when Oprah Winfrey visited West Side. First, she ordered a pizza lunch for every student. Then she gave each student a $500 Shop Rite gift card. Finally, she donated half-a-million dollars to the "Lights On' program. Her gift will help the program operate three nights a week over the summer.

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