This is the first in a new series of articles, celebrating the achievements of educational visionaries in our communities who exemplify the power of partnerships and democracy in education. To start this series off is the story of Deanna Creighton Cook from the Albuquerque Public School district in New Mexico. Creighton Cook is the brains, and the brawn, behind The Homework Diner. Do you know a Changemaker we can profile? Email Ana N. June: firstname.lastname@example.org
Above: Deanna Creighton Cook with Chelsea Clinton during the NBC coverage of Homework Diner.
Deanna Creighton Cook is so deeply involved in her numerous initiatives that when her husband asked recently what she was planning to “take off her plate,” her automatic response was telling.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘sleep?’”
It’s a humorous response that many working parents relate to and reach for when responsibilities overwhelm. But, given the scope of Creighton Cook’s work, it’s hard to imagine she gets any sleep as it is.
Creighton Cook and her family, husband Eric Cook and children Wells, Anson, and Maeve, moved from Vermont to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in June 2010, when Eric was hired at Sandia National Laboratories. Coming from a district with low student populations in each school, Creighton Cook was initially intimidated by the much larger school in her neighborhood: Manzano Mesa Elementary.
“In Vermont we had something like eighty students in our entire elementary school,” she says. “Here in Albuquerque there were eight hundred.”
Daughter Maeve was going into Kindergarten at the time, and Creighton Cook was feeling out of her element. She didn’t know anyone at Manzano Mesa, and was stunned to find out that there were no afterschool programs for students. Then, a neighbor sent her a copy of the Parent-Teacher Organization newsletter.
“They were asking for help in the library so I went over and met the librarian,” she recalls.
The two of them hit it off and she started volunteering in the library twice a week. What she didn’t know then was, that aside from a couple of PTO representatives, she was the only parent volunteering at the school.
Manzano Mesa had funding from the Kellogg Foundation to support their work as the first Community School in the district, but the levels of parent involvement at the time didn’t meet the requirements of the grant and the school was actively looking for ways to draw parents in.
“I wanted something to do and I wanted to know more about where my kids were going to school. That’s how I got involved in this whole thing, and it grew from there,” says Creighton Cook.
The “whole thing” Creighton Cook references is Homework Diner—a Community School initiative that started with a miniscule budget and a big idea, and has now grown even beyond the borders of New Mexico.
FAMILY DINNERS…AT SCHOOL
Manzano Mesa Principal, Peggy Candelaria, was already looking for ways to boost parental involvement. There had previously been a person at the school who would engage the Native American students in discussions over dinner, and when Creighton Cook heard that, she got to thinking.
“Dinner brings people in,” she and Candelaria discussed, “so maybe we do that.” The school had only about $500 left over from the grant—a small amount considering the size of the idea—but Creighton Cook was undeterred.
“At the same time, Manzano Mesa wasa pilot school for Common Core,” she says, adding that adjusting to the new guidelines was confusing for teachers and parents alike. Parents didn’t know how to help their kids so Candelaria and Creighton Cook thought, why not get some teachers to come to the dinner and talk to the parents? The idea that evolved from there was for teachers to explain to parents, over a home-cooked meal, what they do in the classroom and what parents can do at home. The more Creighton Cook thought about it, the more she realized it was a particularly good idea for another reason: It wouldn’t be high stakes like a parent-teacher conference or meeting with the principal.
“When do we ever have a place and time to have a conversation like this?” she says. “Never! Everyone is so busy.”
Candelaria wanted Homework Diner to have a family dinner feeling because students who eat dinner with their family even once a week show lower risk factors overall. With that in mind, Creighton Cook went to some thrift stores and bought 25 cent plates plus tablecloths, real forks, and cloth napkins. On the first night of Homework Diner, they set the tables and made it look as much like home as they could.
“We decided to do a five-week pilot program in the spring and people thought we were crazy,” Creighton Cook says and laughs. “Nobody starts something in April! It’s just not done!”
But Creighton Cook knew that was what she had to work with, and decided to give it a go, see how things went. She chose Thursday nights.
“We figured homework is due Friday, so we thought we could help get kids caught up.”
For the first Homework Diner, parents cooked food at home and brought it. Thirty-five people showed up. Creighton Cook didn’t advertise much because she just wanted to try it out. She had taken her $500 budget and divvied it up to cover five weeks, then added some Title I money to give stipends to the teachers.
“I had one teacher,” Creighton Cook says, “who participated the whole time and never submitted a time sheet.”
After the pilot, Candelaria and Creighton Cook surveyed everyone involved.
They all loved it.
FUNDING ISSUES…AND SOLUTIONS
By May, Creighton Cook was out of money.
“Over the summer I thought, ok what am I going to do to keep this going?” she says.
On a whim, she went to her closest Albertsons grocery store. There she talked to the manager and explained what she was doing, asking if he’d be willing to sponsor the food for one night at a cost of about $125. He told her that was more than he normally donates and offered her a gift card for $25.
“I told him thank you so much, and figured I’d just go to all the local Albertsons and ask for gift cards,” she says. In the end, she didn’t have to do that.
The next day, the manager from Albertsons showed up at the school office with a one thousand dollar check.
Creighton Cook lights up at the memory, talking more rapidly as she relates what the manager said. “He told me he’d done some thinking,” she recalls. “He thought it was a great idea and that what we were doing is so important.”
The manager handed Creighton Cook the check and said, “We’re your neighborhood store, and we want to support families and the school, so here you go!”
Creighton Cook was amazed…and energized.
Riding on the energy of the generous donation from Albertsons, Creighton Cook reached out to a micro-grant program in Albuquerque called ABQ Sprout.
“It’s not in operation anymore, unfortunately,” she says, “but basically a restaurant provided the space and food trucks donated the food. People would come and pay a minimum of fifteen dollars for dinner, and while they were eating they’d watch presentations and then vote for their top three favorites.”
All the cash collected from the night was the grant. Creighton Cook applied, and collaborated with Candelaria to stage a short play.
“I was on stage with all these greasy pizza boxes and I had a little doll and my kids were like ‘oh can you help me with blah blah blah,’” Creighton Cook says, laughing. “And Peggy is sitting there next to this beautiful table with a tablecloth and flowers and she comes over and says, ‘would you like to come over to Homework Diner? We can help you.’”
Their skit won first place—one thousand dollars in cash, which ABQ Sprout gave to Creighton Cook in a burlap bag with a dollar sign on it.
Emboldened yet again, Creighton Cook just kept going.
“I was looking for any little thing to keep Homework Diner functioning,” she says.
Some of those little things happened through serendipity. One day, on a field trip with her son to the zoo, Creighton Cook started chatting with two other moms and noticed that one of them had a bandage on her hand.
“I asked her what had happened, and she said she’d burned herself in her culinary arts class,” Creighton Cook says.
It turned out that both of the other mothers were culinary arts students at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), and in her characteristic show of enthusiasm and determination, Creighton Cook immediately told them about Homework Diner and asked if they wanted to come and cook for the program.
“They said yes!” Creighton Cook says with a big smile. “So, then we had to figure out how to use the kitchen at the school to cook the food.”
Creighton Cook learned that they could use it if they paid the cafeteria manager time and a half to supervise the space. A doctor who lived in the Manzano Mesa neighborhood, and wanted to help, agreed to cover that cost. Every month she wrote Creighton Cook a check. To source the food, Creighton Cook went to Roadrunner Food Bank, which was free with only a nineteen cents per pound administrative fee.
“It became like the Iron Chef because the culinary students would never know what was going to be available,” Creighton Cook laughs. “They would look through it on Thursday to figure out what they were going to cook for Monday, then plan the meal.”
The food, she says, was always amazing.
ATTENDANCE GROWS AND THE WORD GETS OUT
More and more families were coming to Homework Diner in part because Creighton Cook was doing some direct outreach to Spanish and Vietnamese speaking families in the school. Then, in October, 2012, the Albuquerque Journal got wind of it and wrote a story that mentioned the culinary arts students from CNM.
“Right after the Journal article came out, CNM called me and said they had no idea their students were involved in the program,” says Creighton Cook. During that call, the college upped the ante. “They told me they had a USDA grant to provide healthy food to families, and offered to pay for the rest of the year.”
By then, Homework Diner was generating its own momentum. This was bolstered not long after the Journal article came out when KOB, a local news channel, called to do a story. Creighton Cook set up a time for them to visit the Homework Diner and see it in action, but on the night the crew was due to shoot, they were late.
“They called and said, ‘um, there was a murder down the road…’” Creighton Cook recalls. “People were washing dishes by the time they arrived, but they did a nice piece.”
That nice piece was what caught the attention of NBC Assistant Producer, Craig Stanley, and in 2013, NBC Nightly News sent their special correspondent, Chelsea Clinton, to Manzano Mesa.
“Six months later, because Homework Diner had expanded to several more schools, NBC came back to do a follow up!” Creighton Cook says. “The producer assured me that it was unheard of for them to come back in such a short time.” The media coverage injected the program with a burst of energy, and Homework Diner expanded from one school to two schools to seven schools.
In April 2016, Creighton Cook went to work with ABC Community School Partnership, an educational organization comprising major Albuquerque and Bernalillo County partners. Albuquerque Public Schools, Bernalillo County, the City of Albuquerque, United Way of Central New Mexico, and the University of New Mexico are all ABC partners, and ABC is a recognized partner in NNER’s local work. Dr. Viola Florez, NNER’s Executive Board Chair and local setting leader, also serves on the ABC Board.
At the same time that Creighton Cook was assuming her new role at ABC, Homework Diner needed a new kitchen space to handle the burgeoning volume of food.
“I tossed around a couple of ideas and then something else happened was kind of a lightbulb moment,” Creighton Cook says.
Former ABC director, Jose Munoz, had developed an idea for a sort of Shark Tank, inspired by the TV show, that would finance various student clubs and projects using funds given to ABC by the City of Albuquerque.
“The Highland High School culinary arts program was interested in starting a catering service and cooking for Homework Diner,” Creighton Cook says. In anticipation of their application to the ABC Shark Tank for this purpose, Creighton Cook visited Highland High and saw that that there was a full commercial kitchen on site. It would be perfect for the production of the quantities Homework Diner would require.
“The students applied and got funding,” Creighton Cook says, “then we licensed the kitchen through the city and now all the cooking for Homework Diner happens at Highland High.”
Participating schools are now responsible for picking up their meals each week.
HOMEWORK DINER TODAY, AND THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS
Homework Diner has now expanded beyond New Mexico, where it continues in eleven schools, and is operating in fifteen other states. As for Creighton Cook, she’s no less busy but not as involved with Homework Diner as she was in the beginning. ABC continues to be the central partner in maintaining Homework Diner, with APS providing the infrastructure. The energy for the program, initiated by Deanna, has come full circle through a network of partnerships with community organizations, educators, and, of course, individuals.
“One of the moms I met at the zoo in 2012 is now the community school coordinator at Highland High,” says Creighton Cook, “and she coordinates the cooking for Homework Diner with two colleagues from CNM.” Eventually, those colleagues will be experienced enough to take it over, and Creighton Cook has no doubt the program will continue…and continue to expand.
Ultimately, Homework Diner exemplifies the power of how networking and partnerships can support student achievement through perhaps less traditional academic means. In the case of Homework Diner, Creighton Cook and Candelaria did this by reimagining the academic community through the family tradition of sitting down to a nourishing, home-cooked dinner. In doing so, they bridged the gap between school and home in a way that made the most sense for teachers and families.
Creighton Cook is now entering the final year of her Educational Leadership Master’s degree, and continues her work with ABC. Her kids are 17, 14, and 12, respectively, and despite her initial trepidation when faced with the much larger Albuquerque Public School District, Creighton Cook and her family are settled and happy in Albuquerque.
“Now, we can’t imagine moving,” she says.
In her downtime, Creighton Cook likes to ski, ice skate, and snowshoe, and she’s just learned how to play pickleball, a racquet sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis. Presumably, she fits in time for sleep, somewhere, but given her energy and enthusiasm, it’s not hard to imagine that she’d give that up in a heartbeat to pursue a new big idea to improve the lives of children in New Mexico…and beyond.
HOMEWORK DINER ON NBC NIGHTLY NEWS: