Cradle to college: LEAP Academy in Camden celebrates mission at annual fundraising gala

Only 5.5% of adults in Camden hold a bachelor’s or professional degree. LEAP Academy University Charter School is attempting to do something about that.

The school, which bills itself as a cradle to college pipeline that educates students in K-12th grade while also aiming to pave the way for hundreds of students from Camden to attend college, held its annual fundraising gala last weekend.

The event helped raise money for the Rutgers University Alfredo Santiago Endowed Scholarship, which was established in 1997 by LEAP founder Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, in memory of her husband, Alfredo Santiago. The scholarship fund provides financial assistance to LEAP graduates who enroll full-time at one of Rutgers University’s three campuses.

Bonilla-Santiago said the event, a celebration of success, touches her deeply.

“My late husband dreamed of a way to give students who might not have had the opportunity to attend college a chance at a quality, postsecondary education,” she said. “Every year, I am thrilled to see our Santiago Scholars graduate and go on to pursue their futures.”

The gala also honored select individuals for their contribution to the school’s mission of preparing college-ready students, whether through leadership, contribution or service:

  • Distinguished Leadership Award: Vernon Hill II and Shirley Hill, founders of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank, London, along with Elizabeth Dale, the chief business development and investor relations officer of StartUp Health, received the award for their persistence in addressing inequities in the Philadelphia and Camden communities;
  • Distinguished Alumni Award: Preston Lindsay (Class of 2008) an organizational psychologist and educator who specializes in multicultural and antiracist organizational development and organizational neuroscience was honored;
  • Distinguished Board Leadership Award: Michael Palis, an internationally renowned researcher in parallel and distributed computing and design, was honored.

Alfredo Santiago dedicated his life to ensuring that underserved youth had access to education. LEAP officials said this scholarship enables his work to live on. Its goal is to increase the number of children in Camden who attend college, giving precedence to Latino and Black students majoring in nontraditional areas of study.

Children as young as kindergarten through the later years of high school are eligible for the scholarship and need only to meet standards set by the school, such as maintaining a 3.5 GPA, to claim a tuition-paid spot at Rutgers. Current graduates of the Santiago scholarship program are pursuing degrees in law, nursing, political science, pharmacy, engineering, economics and more.

An example of LEAP’s efforts came last week, as tech experts and local business owners joined 1,560 Camden students to celebrate National Computer Science Week at the school.

LEAP Academy’s weeklong program featured discussions on representation in tech, hands-on technology workshops and business and career training. The school’s Fabrication Lab, a year-round innovation lab, will augment the week’s lessons with opportunities for hands-on projects.

“We elevated National Computer Science Education Week at LEAP to engage our students with career/college readiness skills as they prepare for future college experience,” Bonilla-Santiago said. “We believe that knowledge is power. Students need to understand computer science competencies to be able to compete in the job market.”