They always heard the plane before they saw it. Then, within moments, the single-prop aircraft would appear in the sky, dusting the Salem County farm fields with pungent pesticides. The migrant workers harvesting blueberries or tomatoes or potatoes would stop what they were doing and run for cover. They were never given a warning.

And Gloria Bonilla-Santiago witnessed scenes like this many times as a child. She was the youngest of three in a family of migrant farmers who moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland in 1961. Autumns and winters were spent harvesting oranges and tomatoes in Florida. With the approach of spring, the family headed back to South Jersey for work in the fields of Salem County, and it was there that she grew fearful of the planes.

“I realized that migrant workers in New Jersey had fewer rights than bees,” says Bonilla-Santiago SSW’78, director of the Community Leadership Center (CLC) at Rutgers University–Camden and founder of the LEAP Academy University Charter School, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “Bee farmers were notified before they would spray so they could gather the bees and keep them safe. But not the migrant workers. How could they treat migrant workers worse than bees? That’s when I first understood injustice and knew I wanted to make a difference.”

That difference is manifest in LEAP. Since opening on September 15, 1997, with 324 elementary school students housed in trailers on Linden Street in Camden, LEAP has grown into a K–12 network of charter schools that serves 1,500 children each year and constitutes four campuses emphasizing math, science, business, and liberal arts education.

LEAP—Leadership, Education, and Partnership—was one of the first 13 charter schools opened in New Jersey and the first in Camden. It was a progressive institution that Bonilla-Santiago once considered a public policy long shot—but now serves as a model for similar educational platforms across the country and beyond.

Alumna Gloria Bonilla-Santiago with students


“I see myself as a pioneer of the charter school movement. It was a battle. But I did it because I knew this was something parents and children needed,” says Bonilla-Santiago, who earned her master’s in social work from Rutgers University–New Brunswick and also serves as a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor at Rutgers University–Camden.

Bill Cardoni

“The transformative impact of LEAP upon hundreds of Camden families cannot be ignored,” says Phoebe A. Haddon, the chancellor of Rutgers University–Camden. “I applaud Dr. Bonilla-Santiago for her passion and her fierce commitment to Camden’s children. She is a leading example of how Rutgers faculty are changing the world every day.”

“It’s worked because we’ve given poor families alternatives to what traditional public education looked like in Camden,” says Bonilla-Santiago, who serves as a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers–Camden.

Operating under the umbrella of the CLC, Bonilla-Santiago stresses how LEAP provides its students with a unique “cradle-to-college pipeline” model of education, enrolling infants, toddlers, and preschoolers into the program’s Early Learning Research Academy and  nurturing them through high school graduation and college enrollment.

LEAP has touted 100 percent high school graduation and college placement rates since 2005, closing a wide achievement gap for many African-American and Latino students who are poor and mostly first-generation college bound. An average of 50 to 60 LEAP alumni wind up at Rutgers each year, while others attend regional staples like Rowan and Temple universities. A handful of LEAP graduates have attended Ivy League institutions.

“We’re using this school—in partnership with Rutgers—to transform entire communities,” says Bonilla-Santiago, the author of The Miracle on Cooper Street: Lessons From an Inner City (Archway Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 2014).

After obtaining her Ph.D. from the City University of New York in 1986, Bonilla-Santiago became an assistant professor at Rutgers’ School of Social Work, where she had earned her master’s degree. But her goals for  transforming the ailing city of Camden extended well beyond the halls of academia, and her sights were set on Cooper Street. “Cooper Street used to be a diaspora in the middle of a big city,” says Bonilla-Santiago. “But I thought, ‘Someday I will do something big here.’”

To set her plan in motion, Bonilla-Santiago secured a $1.5 million grant from the Delaware River Port Authority in 1993 that allowed her to assemble a research team and collect data on the specific shortcomings of Camden’s public school landscape. It also allowed her to visit dozens of the city’s schools, and what she saw was astounding. Fourth and fifth graders couldn’t read or write. Fewer than 35 percent of students were graduating from high school. And crime, vandalism, and pervasive apathy ruled the day.

“I’m a big believer in public education, but it just wasn’t working in Camden,” says Bonilla-Santiago. “There was so much neglect, and it highlighted this large disparity between the rich and the poor. Something had to change.”

Bonilla-Santiago sought the backing of state senator and state education committee chair Jack Ewing, who saw the dismal conditions, and she lobbied Trenton legislators, leading to Governor Christine Whitman’s signing the New Jersey Charter School Program Act in 1995 and paving the way for LEAP’s genesis. Now Cooper Street is home to all five of LEAP’s academic buildings, including the renovated 12-story Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago STEAM Campus, which houses the high school.

“The idea that a public school can transform a community is so empowering,” she says. “Together with Rutgers, we’re solving massive, systemic problems, and that’s a pretty incredible story.” •