The media mogul was inspired to get involved with the “Lights On” initiative after seeing a “CBS Evening News” report about it in March.
In it, Cook also showed off five commercial-grade washers and dryers installed so students who can;t wash their clothes at home can do so at school.
Last Friday, Oprah showed up at the school. Students didnt know she was coming, but Principal Cook did. What he didnt know was what else Oprah wanted to give to them.
In addition to serving up with pizza (from her O, Thats Good! Line), she brought something extra: a donation to the program.
“Im gonna leave here tonight, and leave you with half a million dollars!” she told the crowd, who burst into cheers.
Correspondent David Begnaud asked Anthony, a junior, why he chooses to be at the school at night. “I like to play basketball a lot, its my favorite sport,” he replied. “I come here and I play basketball from 6 to 10 oclock, then I go home.”
For Principal Cook, Oprahs gift felt like an act of love: “Love is powerful; you cannot underestimate the power of love. Theyve been showing my kids and me and this community that they love them, and its gone a long way.”
“The lesson is, every day theres a story that you can do something about,” she said. “Today I actually did something.”
Appearing on “CBS This Morning” Monday, Cook said that the program definitely has had a positive effect on the students. “We just started doing it with love, and you could see the change,” he said. “My kids felt a sense of pride. Its making them want to be that superstar student and successful citizen that we want them to be, and its just all because of love, just being consistent and sticking with it. Most times they didnt have anyone. So, now we all are championing them, and they feel it.”
Cooks said the “Lights On” program, now in its fourth year, was begun because he had lost three students to gun violence: “And since we opened it up at school, we havent lost any more kids.”
He admitted that there was some resistance at first from the kids to being at school until 11 p.m. on Friday nights. “You have to build trust,” he said. “When we first started off, it was just basketball and jump rope. … We realized that we needed to do more things for the young ladies, and once we started doing that, the guys came!”
He hopes to expand the programs beyond just recreational time: “I still need to do more just restorative things for the kids – yes, its recreational, but if I can give them some educational resources and show them some life skills so they can be more employable to employers, anything I can [do] to make them successful.
“I know we all want to send our kids straight to college, but sometimes these kids cant [go]. They need to go to the work force to support their siblings, [or] their own children.”
Other principals have reached out about the “Lights On” program. “We want to be out in L.A. at a school in Watts,” Cook said. “Yale University contacted me; they want to do it in New Haven, Conn. And Las Vegas has, I think, 300,000 students; were working with Clark County.
“So yes, principals have been reaching out and Im trying to take this show on the road, because how dare I sit on something this awesome and not share it with the world?”
The media mogul made the announcement to a packed gymnasium of screaming students at West Side High School in Newark, where principal Akbar Cook started the Lights On program to give students somewhere safe to hang out after school. The program also provides a space for students to enjoy a meal or do their laundry.
Lights On runs from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and has existed for years, but gained national attention last year when Cook installed washing machines and dryers at the school for students who told him they were being bullied because they could not afford to wash their school uniforms. In some cases, students reported skipping school to avoid being taunted.
Cook appeared twice on Ellen DeGeneres talk show, where he was gifted $50,000 each time toward his efforts.
Cook had an emotional exchange with the media mogul in the parking lot afterward where the two held hands and expressed mutual admiration, NJ.com reported.
My kids feel like they dont have anyone,” Cook said, according to the outlet. And you just took time out of your busy schedule to show me and my babies love. Im floored. Im truly humbled.”