Cradle to college: Unique LEAP program in Camden puts 164 more students on path to full-tuition scholarships

Marissa Grapine, an 11th-grader at the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, has big dreams of being the first person in her family to attend college — and a big roadblock in the cost of tuition.

Thankfully, she has the newly designated Alfredo and Gloria Bonilla-Santiago Endowed Scholarship to help her out.

Earlier this week, she was one of 164 Camden students who entered the incredible program that promises to pay full tuition at any of three campuses of Rutgers University.

Grapine is part of a pipeline of kids, grades K-11, that will join 573 college students in the program — provided they maintain a 3.5 GPA and have four or fewer unexcused absences during the year.

They are requirements Grapine said she’s more than willing to meet. She fully understands the reward.

“Having the Alfredo Santiago Scholar Patch is like a break-free from the generational curses my family has gone through,” she said. “I feel like being pushed in the college environment, even if you grew up around people who weren’t academically minded, is a great thing.”

This push is exactly what Gloria Bonilla-Santiago had in mind in 1999, when she helped establish the original scholarship program — the Rutgers University Alfredo Santiago Scholarship — in loving memory of her husband.

Alfredo Santiago dedicated his life to ensuring that underserved youth had access to education, and 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 these students majoring in the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics fields and other nontraditional areas of study.

In a city where 32% percent of students don’t graduate high school and only 5.5% of adults hold a college degree, the Alfredo and Gloria Bonilla-Santiago Endowed Scholarship paves an alternative path for hundreds of students.

“Alfredo and I believe that education is a real equalizer in providing poor students with a top-tier education that would break the cycle of poverty that so many families in Camden experience,” she said.

Bonilla-Santiago, Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Service, Department of Public Policy and Administration community leadership director, and founder and board chair of LEAP Academy, wanted to make sure the program served students of all ages.

Children as young as kindergarten are eligible for the scholarship and need only to meet certain academic and behavioral standards to retain their eligibility. If they fall short of the metrics, they can work with LEAP counselors to get back on track.

The scholarship program is just one of the ways the school does more than provide an education for underresourced students. It also provides extracurricular activities, supplemental tutoring and safe places of recreation — resources many students depend on to fill in those critical gaps.

Simply put, the LEAP model was designed to support students in ways a traditional district school falls short.

The Alfredo and Gloria Bonilla-Santiago Endowed Scholarship — a signature part of LEAP’s model and cradle-to-college pipeline — clearly is working.

Current graduates of the Santiago scholarship program are pursuing degrees in law, nursing, political science, pharmacy, engineering, economics and more. Others have returned to the school, where they occupy a range of teaching, community and senior leadership roles.

Bonilla-Santiago said the program’s impact goes far beyond the individual students it helps.

“We envisioned a model in which education served as a nexus for community and economic development, bolstering not just our students, but families and the city at large,” she said.