School That Now Requires The Strangest Kind of “Homework” Is Drawing National Attention

Not every student is created equal; so when it comes to traditional schooling, things can get sticky. Something as simple as bringing a pencil to class can be a struggle for kids who have grown up with financial or familial troubles. For them, it can feel like their only option is to give up entirely.

One high school teacher realized how desperately his at-risk students in Dubuque, Iowa, needed someone to show them the way to success. Hoping to turn their lives around, he drew up a strange scheme that he hoped would change their worrisome trajectories.

If you were to spend a day at the Alternative Learning Center High School in Dubuque, Iowa, you would probably see what you’d expect at any public school: students walking to class, teachers writing equations on a chalkboard, energetic lunchtimes. But that’s where your familiarity might end.

Since this high school is an alternative school, the curriculum is specialized for students with behavioral problems or, in this case, who are in danger of doing something they may regret for the rest of their lives…

Stand and Deliver

…dropping out. Leaving high school is usually not the path to future success, a fact that was recognized by Social Studies teacher Tim Hitzler. A beloved teacher at the Learning Center, Hitzler came up with an idea that would put his students’ admiration to the test.

Telegraph Herald

Even before revealing his idea to his students, Hitzler knew it wouldn’t be popular. These kids were in an Alternative school because traditional schooling was too structured and demanding, and Hitzler’s idea would force them to confront these challenges head-on.

His idea was centered around one of the least popular classes at the Learning Center: Gym class. Hitzler knew that many of his students needed PE credits — and they needed them badly, or there was a chance they wouldn’t graduate.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

This is when Hitzler’s plan to help his students was born: for the last two weeks of the school year, Hitzler would offer extra gym credits to students who helped him clean up the yards of neighbors and community members. Of course, the idea was met with hesitance.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

Hitzler himself was no stranger to hard work — his own passion for community engagement lead him to creating Key City Creative Center, which is aimed at helping and educating the Dubuque community about woodworking and creative projects. But just because he felt compelled to help didn’t mean his students would.

Key City Creative Center/Facebook

But Hitzler had faith that once the students started the work and saw their PE grades improve, they would turn around to the idea. When the first day of the after-school program began, Hitzler waited nervously to see what would happen.

Sadly, the students’ response wasn’t enthusiastic. After all, what kid wants to spend the last two weeks of school knee-deep in weeds, covered in muck from cleaning a stranger’s gutters, and dripping with sweat?

Very Well Family

During the first few community service sessions, Hitzler could tell that his students weren’t enthused. They worked slowly and needed a lot of encouragement in order to complete their tasks. Hitzler’s idea seemed to be dead on arrival.

Teen Life

Then, slowly but surely, Hitzler started to see a change. “Once [the students] get involved and start doing the yard work, they get more motivated,” Hitzler said. But he couldn’t have known how big of a change there would be with the students.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

It turns out helping people is kind of addicting. “Once they do it once, they wanna do it again,” Hitzler said. While the kids were once slow and frustrated, they started working hard, ignoring the sweat in order to successfully complete their projects. So what caused this huge switch?

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

The whole point of the program was for the students to do yard work for extra credit, but it soon became apparent that something else was happening with the students: They were connecting with the people they were helping.

Tim Hitzler/Facebook

The community members they helped were either disabled or elderly, and the students started to see how something as simple as mowing a lawn could turn their neighbor’s day around. For the students, it was not just about the extra credit anymore.

Even more surprisingly, the students started to feel better about themselves. Hitzler could see the motivation in the students’ faces and the confidence growing within them. And as their confidence grew, so did something else…

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

The relationship between the students and the people they were helping started to flourish. Gone were the days of half-completed yard work; the students actually cared about the work they were doing, and the neighbors thanked them with cookouts, lunches, and snacks. Hitzler couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

“They really like giving back to people and meeting the person,” Hitzler said of his students’ improvement. The changes didn’t end there — during the course of four years, Hitzler’s program evolved past what he could ever have imagined.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

What started as simple yard work transformed into a community-wide passion for improvement among the students. They’ve cleaned everything from golf courses to river barges, but their most recent project really raised the bar.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

In early July 2019, Hitzler and some student volunteers helped renovate an old bar into a new retail space that would benefit the entire community. The most shocking part? These students volunteered after the program had already ended, without the allure of extra credit. But one thing still weighed on Hitzler’s mind…

Tim Hitzler/Facebook

After all, the original point of the program was to teach the kids about responsibility while they earned extra credit. The kids may have learned new skills, but did the program eventually help the at-risk students set positive goals for the future?

Tim Hitzler/Facebook

Students who began the program as frustrated freshmen spent the last two weeks of their senior year getting their hands dirty for the benefit of Dubuque. The passion Hitzler cultivated in his students clearly stuck with the returning alumni, all thanks in part to Hitzler’s leap of faith.

Alternative Learning Center/Facebook

But Hitzler would’ve struggled to solve the issues at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Because, despite having grown up in the area, even Vice Principal Ackbar Cook never expected the scene he walked into on his first day of classes.

Akbar Cook / Facebook

The hallway “looked like a mall;” students leaned against lockers tagged with gang signs and lingered outside empty classrooms, disinterested in their education. Cook had his work cut out for him, but he wouldn’t be deterred: he was there to make a difference.


“I had to go back to my teachings from my grandmother,” he told On Point. “The gangsters don’t come to school. They already told their families that they weren’t going to do it. So if a kid is in school, they’re either afraid or loved — from their mama, nana, their uncle or somebody.”


But as steadfast in his mission as he was, Cook alone couldn’t stop tragedy from striking. Gang violence took three of his students over the next year, and many feared things would never improve for students. That’s when Cook decided he’d no longer be a bystander.


Drawing on his experience as a kid in the Boys and Girls Club, Cook opened the school from 6 pm to 11 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the summer to provide students with a safe haven from crime. The results were unexpected.


“We opened it up, and I want to say by the first week or so we had about 30 folks there, and it was a weird demographic because I had 40-year-old parents with their kids, 25-year-old [gangsters], and 8-year-olds,” said Cook. “Nevertheless, they needed us, so we just loved on them and provided all these resources.”


Word of the program – dubbed “Lights On!” – spread throughout the community, and for the rest of the summer, Cook regularly saw around 150 students attending his events. Sadly, however, this success wouldn’t be enough to stop the violence completely.

Newark Public Schools

Just a few hours after attending an end-of-summer event at West Side, one of Cook’s students was shot and killed by a stray bullet. The vice principal knew he couldn’t wait until next summer to continue his program — he’d have to open it year round.

Only In Your State

And so he did! From then on, Lights On! began running every Friday, providing all manner of fun, safe, and educational activities for boys and girls alike. With an average of 350 students per event, Cook’s hard work was paying off.

Newark Public Schools

“Since we did that…I haven’t lost any more kids to gun violence,” Cook beamed. “We’ve been saving lives, and we’ve been showing the nation and other principals that this can work, and you need this in your city, as well.”

Newark Public Schools

But even with the success of Light On!, West Side High School still had another problem on its hands: bullying. Cook couldn’t understand it. With all the fun and camaraderie built over the years, why were the students picking on one another?

Troubled Teens

Evidently, it all came down to clothes. Many of the students in the community came from poor families and therefore couldn’t afford to wash their uniforms. Those that came to school wearing dirty clothes were being mercilessly bullied for it.

In fact, the bullying had gotten so bad that some students had actually stopped coming to school. Cook even recalled one incident where a student was arrested because she was too embarrassed to open a bag filled with dirty clothes when a security guard asked her to.

Eventually, Cook learned that a staggering 85 percent of his students had missed at least one day of school over this dirty-clothes bullying. So, as he’d done with his Lights On! program, the vice principal drew up a solution.

After petitioning the Public Service Energy Group (PSEG), Cook received a $20,000 grant in the form of five washers and five dryers for West Side. He then began collecting detergent and other donations from the local community, who were more than happy to lend a hand.


When all was said and done, Cook had converted West Side’s football locker room into a fully stocked laundry room. Now, students could wash their clothes free of charge and end the bullying once and for all.

Catresa McGhee / Facebook

Not only that, but Cook also created a room adjacent to the laundry called the Makerspace. Here, teachers would be stationed both before and after school to engage students in STEM activities as they waited for their clothes to finish in the wash.


News of the vice principal’s heroics soon went viral, and he actually appeared on Ellen twice to share his inspiring story and enlighten others about the struggles that many impoverished schools face.


Cook’s programs have since inspired dozens like them across the country as schools in low-income areas seek to solve the issues of crime, bullying, and poor attendance.


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