Camden charter school grads look ahead – and behind

Originally from the Courier Post, written together with Phil Dunn

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CAMDEN – At LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, planning for college begins in preschool.

LEAP founder Gloria Bonilla-Santiago described her ideology of promoting college from birth to graduation as “the pipeline,” and so far the plan is paying off. On Friday, the entire class of 2013 — 60 students — will graduate with plans to attend college in the fall. It is the ninth consecutive LEAP Academy class to meet the goal.

“The kids are the focus for me … ” said Bonilla-Santiago, also the school’s board chairwoman. “They are the most resilient students I ever met.”

Amira McFarland, 18, will walk on stage Friday as valedictorian. Though the East Camden resident said she was ready to graduate, she will miss her time at LEAP.

“It’s the LEAP experience,” added McFarland, who will attend Rutgers University as a biology major. “You can’t really explain it.”

With about 1,300 students in grades kindergarten through 12, LEAP Academy is the largest charter school in New Jersey. The school has five campuses on Cooper Street in Camden and an Early Learning Research Academy sponsored by Rutgers, where the “pipeline” to college begins.

Bonilla-Santiago said each school also has a college access center, a place students can get help with college applications or filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The ultimate goal is to get students in a college mindset at a young age.

“We won’t leave one student behind; that’s what we’re all about,” said Khary Golden, director of the college access center at one of LEAP’s two high school campuses.

“If you take a Camden student and give them the right tools, they’ll run with it.”

Jaleel Mason of North Camden is ready to run. The 18-year-old will study mechanical engineering at Temple University this fall and hopes to return to the city as a positive role model.

“You can change it just by getting out of your car in a suit and a briefcase,” he noted. “People need to see success around them.”

Robert Ransom Jr. is a 2009 graduate of LEAP and just finished his bachelor’s in political science at Howard University. He will be LEAP’s commencement speaker Friday.

Ransom has returned to the city to pursue a law degree at Rutgers-Camden.

“I am hoping to deliver a message that will emphasize the importance of returning to your community to invest in the endeavors that contributed to your academic and professional success,” he said.

Moises Urena, 18, is going to Rutgers University for electrical engineering. The East Camden resident transferred to LEAP Academy in the middle of third grade and quickly found a home there.

“At first, I wasn’t happy, but I’m glad I came,” he recalled.

When asked about graduation, McFarland admitted she was nervous about giving a speech and Urena acknowledged his LEAP memories might bring him to tears.

But Mason has his eye on the future.

“I always try to look forward. Everything after this matters.”

Reach Phil Dunn at (856) 486-2456 or Follow him on Twitter @philmdunn


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