Point A: A young girl born in Puerto Rico in 1962 spends her childhood traveling up and down the Eastern Coast from Florida to New Jersey as her parents, migrant laborers, follow the harvest.
Point B: A highly-accomplished educational leader starts New Jersey’s very first public charter school in the state’s most violent and educationally-deprived city.
How does one traverse that trajectory?
You’d have to ask Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, founder and leader of LEAP Academy Charter School in Camden, New Jersey. She sees her life’s mission as the pursuit of social justice and believes that the most efficient path towards that goal is enabling Camden families to “break the cycle of poverty” through education.
“Poverty isn’t permanent,” she says with conviction. However, “this society has created an unaccountable public school system” of “ghetto schools” where “thousands of adults make tons of money on the backs of poor people.”
“I’m a big charter school advocate because they provide choice to parents and kids,” she says. “I also believe in public schools that are accountable and support all kids no matter what educational and financial background they come from.” Bonilla-Santiago adds, “I just want great schools.”
How did you transform yourself from a child of migrant workers to a distinguished professor at Rutgers University and a charter school founder?
My parents, poor as they were, dreamed that we’d go to college. After all, Latino parents value education and, therefore, my job was to go to school. I had one choice: go to college or follow my parents to the fields and do manual labor. My father drove me to the library every day and clearly communicated his expectation that there was no room for failure.
Then, when I was in high school in Penns Grove, I met the social activist Marta Benavides. While my parents continued their transient life, I stayed with her, finished high school, and got a full scholarship to college [Glassboro State, now called Rowan University]. I went to school on scholarships and didn’t pay a penny but I worked very hard to earn my degree! That was my ticket out of poverty: education.
Why did you choose to start a charter school in Camden?
Everything I do is intentional and starting a charter school—planning for it, in fact, while New Jersey was still in the process of passing its first charter school law—was how I felt I could make my greatest contribution. I chose Camden City because it was relatively small and I wanted to be in a southern part of the state where there are many students of color, much poverty and high dropout rates.
Camden used to have a “tent city” for the homeless at Seventh and Cooper Street. I bought the lot, rebuilt it and repurposed the buildings. Now our five schools that comprise LEAP Academy University Charter School stretch down Cooper Street from Third to Seventh Street. I wrote a book about this transformation called The Miracle on Cooper Street: Lessons from an Inner City.
LEAP has a close connection with Rutgers University. Why?
Rutgers is the anchor institution of LEAP. It’s a sustainable model. We have proven that we can build a pipeline from infancy to college and produce 100 percent graduation rates and college acceptances. We’ve set up an endowment for all our graduates to attend Rutgers on full scholarships. Our high school students take college courses and participate in internships, and each one graduates with 12- 30 college credits. It does indeed take a village to do this.
How do Camden students get into LEAP?
We participate in Camden Public Schools’ universal enrollment system and every kid comes from a waiting list. We can’t pre-select kids—whatever name comes up gets in—although students enrolled in pre-kindergarten get preference, as well as their siblings. We currently have 3,500 names on our waitlist. But slots rarely open up because 95-98 percent of students stay with us through high school.
How do you maintain that retention rate?
They stay because their parents are engaged in a parent program. And students don’t want to leave because they are receiving a quality education and are loved by everyone. Also, we offer an extended school day and school year, wrap-around services, safe and clean buildings, and clear rituals and values to support students and staff. All of this makes excellence happen.
Do you offer special training for teachers?
Oh, we do much work with our teachers. They do come in with educational deficits, particularly in effective methods to teach the urban learner. They have to learn the “LEAP way.” One day a month all of our teacher participate in an in-house professional development that is customized and supported by a pay-for-performance evaluation tool.
Our teaching is based on a data-driven instruction model. We rely heavily on literacy and math training from faculty from Rutgers, Rowan, and Stockton colleges. We offer lots of support for our staff, particularly math, reading, writing, and science, because we are a STEM-curriculum focused school.
In the 25 years that you’ve led LEAP, do you see improvements in social justice?
Yes, I do see improvements because you see the children come back to the city wanting to change the discourse of public education and the conditions of the city.
But one can see few results at the state and national levels. There’s still no accountability or sense of justice for traditional public schools where poor children live. The segregation, inequality, lack of caring, complacency of adults, poor teaching and learning conditions, have become the acceptable norm in city schools. We don’t hold adults in policy accountable for this educational disaster in our cities. We have become a divided nation. We throw children away by not investing in them. We throw money away because we don’t hold adults responsible for student learning.
The question is: How can we scale up the accomplishments of public schools like LEAP? We certainly can if we are allowed to share best practices in other parts of the state and city. We should reward success and allow schools, regardless of whether they’re charter or traditional, to scale up. Poor schools are the civil rights issue of this era. The best investment a society can make is to support our children and transform the public educational system.