To the students and families of the LEAP Academy University Charter School and her colleagues, Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is known as a trailblazer in higher education, a fierce community activist, and a visionary. Teens and children run to greet her in the halls of the school to let her know they’ve been admitted to a college or invite her into their classrooms to share their latest projects. She sees herself in her students. Like her family, who were migrant workers, she says, “the Camden community finds itself in a cycle of poverty, and education is the only path to change.” Early in life, through a mentor, she learned that seeking an education would rescue her from the farm fields and could make her an agent of community change.
Today, Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor, Graduate Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She was born in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, and was partially raised in Barrio Molinas. Her parents were pushed out of the Island as part of ‘Operation Bootstrap’ to work as migrant farmworkers. They followed the harvests north from Florida to New Jersey.
In 1990, against all odds, in one of New Jersey’s most crime-ridden cities, Bonilla-Santiago founded the Community Leadership Center (CLC), locating it within Rutgers University-Camden. She planned the center after talking to parents who expressed to her a sense of urgency to rescue their children from a desperate existence Bonilla-Santiago saw the university as an anchor of resources to give parents the place and the tools to educate their children and lift their families. Seven years after first opening the CLC, she brought together community alliances and parents to launch the LEAP Academy. Over 1,600 students, from “cradle” (infancy) to high school, attend classes at LEAP. Often you can find students in the school studying late into the evening and see parents involved in all aspects of their child’s education. The school has established a successful high school graduation and college placement track record, achieving 100% graduation and college placement rates since its first graduating class in 2005.
Parents call the school “the Miracle on Cooper Street.” This is also the title of Bonilla-Santiago’s new book, an autobiography of her struggle to lift herself from impoverishment to the highest level of academia, while at the same time changing the city of Camden through education. Bonilla- Santiago’s approach to engaging community and the LEAP charter school’s teaching methodology has resulted in the development of a national and international model for public schools that she is taking to countries across the globe.