Making Miracles in Camden, New Jersey
A passion for education leads to creating one of the nation’s best charter schools, bringing a path to success for inner-city children.
Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago believes that education can take you where you want to go. “It’s a passport to a better life,” she says. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Florida, and New Jersey as a migrant farmworker, Dr. Santiago knew that she wanted more out of life. Her pursuit of education allowed her to earn her current prestigious position as a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. She is also their Director of the Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership.
In 1997, she used her passion for education as the foundation for LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, New Jersey. The charter school teaches at-risk urban kids what they need to know to advance their careers and break the cycle of poverty. Dr. Santiago has done such glorious work that the LEAP Academy has been dubbed the “Miracle on Cooper Street.” As the founder, Dr. Santiago’s known as the “Patron Saint of Cooper Street.” She raised $100 million to finance the LEAP Academy and her other projects. The school boasts a 100% graduation rate.
In the Books
Over the years, Dr. Santiago has gained a wealth of knowledge. She is a respected expert in the field of public policy, community development, diversity management, organizational leadership, and the migration of women. Her book The Miracle on Cooper Street: Lessons from an Inner City (Archway, 2014) details her story of personal and professional struggles. She has also authored Organizing Puerto Rican Migrant Farmworkers: The Experience of Puerto Ricans in New Jersey (Peter Lang, 1988) and Breaking Ground and Barriers: Hispanic Women Developing Effective Leadership (Marin, 1992).
Although Dr. Santiago is book-learned, she has street smarts. More importantly, she wants to make the “streets” smart. Camden, New Jersey, is mostly a low-income community with the majority of the population as African American and Puerto Rican. The median household income, according the 2010 U.S. Census, was less than $28,000. “The community of Camden is impoverished, and kids in the area are quick to turn to crime and short-sighted endeavors,” Dr. Santiago says. “It is my goal that these students understand that there are other ways out of Camden, and it starts with applying yourself to education.”
While a teenager, her parents migrated from Puerto Rico and settled in the United States. College wasn’t in the plans for the young Santiago; in fact, her mother disowned her for pursuing higher education. Meanwhile, her father took her to the library every day while they were working in the fields. Here she met Marta Benavides, a social activist from El Salvador, who allowed the teen to stay with her and go to high school as her parents worked the fields.
Her mom wanted her to be with the family. One night, she refused to listen to her mother’s advice to stay home and work the fields with her family and made an alternate arrangement. Packing up her bags in the middle of the night, she left for college with the help of Benavides. Her mom didn’t talk to her for ten years because of that decision. “I was a little radical at that time. I was reading Marx in high school, and my mom didn’t like it.” Since then, the mother-daughter relationship has been mended. Pursuing higher education earned her a Bachelor of Arts from Rowan University, a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University, as well as a Master of Arts in Philosophy and a doctorate in Philosophy from the City University of New York.
LEAP Academy University Charter School
As an enthusiastic and passionate educator, Dr. Santiago has helped many people, including low-income families and their communities, through her social justice initiatives. That’s why Dr. Santiago founded the Rutgers-Camden Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership to place her academic and innovative projects. The Center provides oversight of the LEAP Academy University Charter School which opened in 1997. At that time, LEAP was the first new school to open in Camden in 30 years. The school started out serving 324 students when it first opened as a K-5 school. Currently, LEAP serves over 2,000 students from pre-K to college level. The schools sit on Cooper Street, an area that used to be a makeshift homeless encampment, filled with tents. Dr. Santiago bought the lot, rebuilt the property, and opened up five schools, effectively transforming slum and blight into a prospering corridor.
For students that attend the LEAP Academy, they are awarded a full scholarship through the Rutgers Alfredo Santiago Endowed Scholarship fund to attend any of the Rutgers Campuses. “The charter school is based on an infant to college pipeline model that allows students to attend college when it would normally be out of reach,” Dr. Santiago says. Because of this, students and parents are clamoring to get into the school. The waiting list is over 1,000 names long.
In 2003, during the first New Jersey Charter Schools Recognition Ceremony, LEAP was honored with the Pioneer Award and Exemplary School Award. The ceremony was sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Education Office of Innovative Programs.
Awards and Honors
Dr. Santiago has been recognized as an innovator in education and social justice by many notable organizations. In 1992, Dr. Santiago received the Warren I. Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching and, in 1993, was honored with Congressional Citation from Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. for her contributions to the Hispanic community. She also won the National Mujer Award from the National Hispana Leadership Institute in 2007.
In 2017, she was the recipient of the Cabrini Ivy Young Willis & Martha Dale Award. This distinction honors women who have made exceptional contributions in the field of Public Affairs and Community Development. She also won the 2018 Power of Woman Award and the L’Oréal Paris Women Of Worth Award. In 2019, Dr Santiago received an honorary doctorate from Cabrini University and the University of Havana, Cuba, for her success in transforming lives and developing one of the most successful educational models for urban children in the United States.
Dr. Santiago is dedicated to her community and improving the lives of people through education, organization, and leadership. She is an avid blogger for U.S. News and World Report and the Huffington Post. She is often sought by the media for her expertise on education and community development and has appeared as a commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, and MSNBC. Learn more about Dr. Santiago and her work at the Rutgers website.