‘Lights On’ program at West Side High School draws national attention

State lawmakers warmly celebrated West Side High School Principal Akbar Cook and toured innovative programs the Newark native set up there, for students he calls his “babies”: a laundry of free washers and dryers, a storeroom filled with personal toiletries and a pantry of take-home food.

“You really are making a difference in the community and in the state, and we’re really lucky to have you,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

But it’s Cook’s biggest triumph, his “Lights On” recreational program at West Side that keeps kids off the street from 6 p.m. to midnight on Fridays during the school year, that brought megastar Oprah Winfrey here last Friday evening.

“Listen up, listen up. So I heard about West Side, okay? And all the great things that are happening here. So I’m going to leave here tonight, and leave you with a half-a-million dollars,” said Oprah Winfrey in a video from CBS News.

“It means that she felt the love, just like other people around the world — it’s been resonating with them. These kids been almost left behind, like the leftovers. Now they feel a sense of pride, like, ‘I can do whatever I want to do! Oprah came here!,'” Cook said.

She’s a hard act to follow, legislators admitted.

“I know you guys had Oprah on Friday, and then it’s just us. But we’ll be here forever. How about that one,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz.

At a round table Monday, they talked with educators and students about Cook’s approach — why it’s crucial to first address basic needs like food, clothing and safety — at a school with a 66% graduation rate, compared to 91% statewide.

“It’s a critical investment. When a child comes into school and they’re hungry, don’t even start talking about academics. When a child comes to school and doesn’t know if they can go back home, don’t think about the SAT’s,” Ruiz said.

“Newark isn’t the safest place to just be running around outside, playing. And Mr. Cook has made sure he created a warming, calm community — especially at Lights On — where you can come and feel safe. He also provides meals for everybody,” said one student.

“When I first came to West Side, we lost three students to gun violence,” Cook said.

Cook started Lights On after a violent summer and funded it with donations. Now the program also runs three nights a week after school lets out in June and costs $150,000 a year. Assembly lawmakers today donated $500, on top of Oprah’s $500,000 and $100,000 from Ellen Degeneres.

The irony: Newark parents used to call their kids to come inside when street lights turned on.

“But now, Lights On is a sign of safety. Hey, come on, we’ll take you in and you’re safe here,” said teacher Jerome Hancock.

School districts across New Jersey are sweating over next year’s budget. But with Oprah’s gift, West Side High School’s Lights On program is funded for at least the next three years.