Published October 22, 2019

By Jen Reiseman-Briscoe

An education champion’s gift will sustain the success of groundbreaking programs for Camden’s children

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago knows firsthand that a college education can help break the cycle of poverty. Leveraging education to escape her own impoverished childhood as the daughter of migrant farmworkers, Santiago has spent the past four decades working to make college access a reality for the children of Camden, New Jersey.

Recently, Santiago SSW’78, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor at Rutgers University–Camden, considered what she wanted her long-term legacy to be. “I began thinking about how to best extend that legacy and also honor Rutgers,” she says. “I knew that one way was to leave a gift from my will and retirement fund.” So last year, Santiago made a bequest intention to leave a six-figure gift to supplement the Alfredo Santiago Endowed Scholarship she had established in her late husband’s name, ensuring that it is funded in perpetuity.

Alfredo Santiago, an assistant dean at Rutgers, had shared his wife’s vision of increasing college access for poor and minority students. After he died in 1996, says Santiago, “the best thing that came to mind was starting an endowed gift along with other people who believed in my work.”

Her gift follows 22 years of creating educational opportunities for Camden youth. Back in 1997, Santiago established the Leadership, Education, and Partnership (LEAP) Academy University School, a public charter school providing high-quality, STEAM-based education with a focus on college readiness. Since graduating its first class in 2005, LEAP has not only boasted a 100 percent graduation rate, but a 100 percent college placement rate. “We have been able to send over 800 kids to college,” says Santiago, noting that many students receive full scholarships from the schools they choose to attend.

LEAP now enrolls about 2,000 students in pre- kindergarten through 12th grade and, in partnership with Rutgers–Camden, operates six Centers of Excellence, including the Early Learning Research Academy (ELRA), which each year offers evidence-based early education programs to more than 300 preschoolers, toddlers, and infants as young as eight weeks old in a “cradle to college” model.

Through ELRA, “kids get everything they need while they go to school: three meals a day, a health clinic, and social and emotional support,” says Santiago.

Enrollment at LEAP is through a lottery system open to all residents of Camden, a city that in 2012 was ranked as the poorest in the nation and is consistently listed among the country’s most violent.

Parent engagement is a huge part of LEAP’s success, says Santiago. Of the six Rutgers/LEAP Centers of Excellence, two are devoted to providing comprehensive services and support for the parents and families of LEAP students: the Family and Student Support Center and the Parents Academy Center.

Santiago started the Alfredo Santiago Endowed Scholarship in 1999 to provide full tuition to LEAP graduates who enroll at one of Rutgers’ three locations. Four years ago, she began offering the scholarship to parents of kindergarteners who commit to sending them to Rutgers. “That’s one way to get parents excited about kids coming to school,” she says. “What parent doesn’t want their child to go to college or have a good education ?” Currently, the scholarship supports roughly 20 to 30 LEAP graduates each year.

A noted expert on social policy, Santiago recounts her journey from poverty to scholar and the success of LEAP in her autobiography, The Miracle on Cooper Street: Lessons from an Inner City (Archway Publishing, 2014).
“There are a lot of inequities and social injustices for minorities and poor kids,” says Santiago. “But when they have a college degree, it’s different—they are educated,” she says. “No one can take that from them.”