GLORIA BONILLA-SANTIAGO is the founder of Camden's LEAP Academy, a charter school which presently occupies the former Elks' Lodge building at North 7th Street and Cooper Street.

Camden Courier-Post * November 2, 2007

Voorhees woman earns national recognition
Commitment to Camden, positive changes help Gloria Bonilla-Santiago win award

Courier-Post Staff

As the daughter of migrant workers, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago understood the plight of the poor working class at an early age. Her parents, she said, consistently taught her the value of giving back to others.

"I was always interested in political science and social justice issues. I thought I was going to be an attorney," said Bonilla­Santiago, who has a doctoral degree in sociology education. "And although we knew we were poor and didn't have a lot of resources, I grew up understand­ing that it was my duty to always make sure I would be well-educated so I could make a change."

For years, Bonilla-Santiago has inspired dozens of people to make positive changes in their respective communities. Her commitment to change and to the city of Camden has granted her nationwide recognition by the Virginia-based National Hispanic Leadership Institute. Next month, the Voorhees resident will travel to Denver to receive the institute's 2007 National Mujer Award.

According to the institute's Web site, the award is given annually to outstanding Hispanic women who have "made significant contributions to the empowerment and well-being of the Hispanic community." Institute officials have praised Bonilla-Santiago for her extensive work in Camden. For example, in 1997, Bonilla-Santiago founded Cam­den's LEAP Academy University Charter School. The LEAP program, which has been referred to as one of the state's first charter institutions, enrolls about 800 students, Bonilla-Santiago said. According to informational literature provided by the school, ev­ery graduate of the LEAP Academy University High School has been accepted into a college or professional school. Bonilla-Santiago said the LEAP Academy is a dream come true for many city residents.

"I was very concerned with what was going on with African-­American and Latino students in Camden," said Bonilla-Santiago, adding that she started designing LEAP in 1993 after traveling and researching various school programs across the country. "My vision was to create a safe community (and) school environment where we could build excellence. It was a dream I had to really design a model school for children."

Bonilla-Santiago, who is a board of governors distinguished service professor for the Department of Public Policy and Ad­ministration at Rutgers-Camden, credits LEAP's dedicated staff, small classroom sizes and strong parental network for the school's continued success.

James Jennings, a professor of urban and environmental policy at Tufts University, says Bonilla-Santiago serves as a role model not only for Hispanic women but for people of all races.

"I think that Gloria's work reflects a strong commitment to community and scholarship," said Jennings, who nominated Bonilla-Santiago for the Mujer Award last year. "I think she's been a role model for people in the city of Camden in terms of how to think about their community, the resources they have and how to leverage those resources on behalf of children."

Bonilla-Santiago said she is also the architect of an education policy and leadership component of a master's degree program in public policy at Rutgers-Camden. The program, she added, helps train teachers and other education professionals who want to become principals or su­perintendents.

The educational policy and leadership part of the degree pro­gram was launched three years ago. It was originally dedicated to professionals who taught in the Camden public school system. The program has since expanded and now includes profes­sionals from all over South Jersey.

Although she's accomplished far more than many people have in a lifetime, Bonilla-Santiago said she still has more to do. She is finalizing plans for the future construction of an early-learning research academy that would reach out to the area's immigrant population.  

"What drives me is the passion and the commitment that I have for the kids - and there is nothing else more important to me," she said.