Camden charter high school aims to endow its seniors with Rutgers education

Camden’s LEAP Academy Charter School has accepted a $1.5 million challenge grant from the John E. Morgan Foundation.

The charter – a K-12 with programs for children as young as 6 weeks old – said it hopes to raise an additional $1.2 million on the way to creating a $3 million college scholarship endowment for its high school seniors.

“Every bit of help supports every step and gets us closer to the realization of our dreams for Camden children and youth,” said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, LEAP’s founder and board chair, at an event Wednesday to announce the challenge.

If it achieves its $3 million endowment goal, Bonilla-Santiago said, the school will ensure that all of its graduating seniors have the chance to attend Rutgers-Camden at no personal expense.

“No matter what, we will cover it. Because, at the end of the day, all these kids qualify for financial aid,” she said. “So first financial aid and then we match the balances. And we pay directly their tuition.”

With compounding interest, Bonilla-Santiago said, this promise is expected to last “in perpetuity, for the rest of our lives.”

The Morgan Foundation’s challenge grant remains in effect through 2017.

Bonilla-Santiago, a distinguished Rutgers University professor, opened LEAP Academy Charter on Cooper street in Camden in 1997. Partnering with Rutgers, LEAP has grown to a five-building K-12 system that hopes to create an “infant to college pipeline.”

LEAP’s system begins at the Early Learning Research Academy.

“They’re not just receiving day care; they’re receiving school. We’re teaching them social, emotional, motor-skill development,” said Bonilla-Santiago. “It’s all about school readiness here.”

The charter also operates a K-6 lower school, a 7-12 upper school and a specialized 9-12 STEM High School.

Hoping to expand, LEAP purchased the historic 12-story Wilson Building in downtown Camden for $2 million in February.

The charter network has graduated 100 percent of its high school seniors in each of the past 10 years, Bonilla-Santiago said. A senior class at LEAP includes about 60 students.

Eighty-five percent of those students, she said, have gone on to complete a postsecondary degree.

In total, LEAP Academy Charter serves 1,400 students. Bonilla-Santiago said the schools average an 11 percent special-education population and a 14 percent English-language learner population.

Another 1,400 students, she said, have been wait-listed. “I could open three more schools, easily,” Bonilla-Santiago said.

LEAP applied to open a K-12 renaissance school in the fall of 2013, but was rejected.

The charter has received some negative headlines over the past few years.

LEAP’s tax-exempt status was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service in 2013 after the school failed to file proper nonprofit financial statements for three years. That status was later reinstated.

The same year, a former LEAP employee accused Bonilla-Santiago of using scholarship funds to pay him to do work at her home during work hours. Bonilla-Santiago denied the accusation. “No such thing EVER happened!” she wrote in a letter to LEAP’s board. “It is a disgraceful charge.”

In 2012, the New Jersey Department of Education found that LEAP had mismanaged thousands of dollars in federal Title I funds.

LEAP corrected the matter by paying the $136,368 the state said it owed.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.