The Scholars Program, founded in 1997, previously involved only LEAP juniors and seniors in high academic standing. It pays for tuition to Rutgers if the student is accepted. This year, LEAP founder and Rutgers-Camden professor Gloria Bonilla-Santiago expanded the scholarship, named after her late husband, to include all grades, first through 12th. Santiago said she had not set a cap on the number of scholars the program can take.
"Instead of waiting until junior year, we said, 'Let's give them a major incentive now, because a big factor to achieve success is the parents knowing the kids are going to go to college,' " Santiago said. "A lot of these parents never even dreamed of college as an option."
Santiago said the scholarship should also encourage younger students during the critical early years. Most city students in third to sixth grades are two full years behind the national averages in math and reading, she said. Many have to repeat a year to catch up.
To remain in or be accepted into the scholarship program, students must maintain a 3.5 GPA, show good behavior, and have minimal absences. Twice a year, the principals of each of three LEAP schools will determine which of about 1,300 students meet the criteria.
Since 2005, the school has graduated about 480 students. Forty-six have taken advantage of the Rutgers scholarship, spread across the school's three campuses. Santiago said 100 percent of LEAP students graduate and go on to college, with about 85 percent of students graduating from college.
Brianna Walker received the scholarship when she graduated from LEAP in 2013. The freshman accounting major at Rutgers-Camden is also a member of Rutgers Scholars, a precollege education program that awards full tuition to 200 students accepted to the university.
"The counseling staff helps get students prepared and ready for college in every sense - financially, academically. I appreciate everything they did for me and for the students that come before and after me," Walker said.
On Wednesday, the gymnasium was filled with parents who snapped photos of students as they received their certificates, a knapsack, and a red pin designating them as scholars. On the walls were banners with the words excellence, discipline, commitment, and victory.
After receiving his certificate and shaking Santiago's hand, Michael Williams smiled widely at his father, Michael Sr., who shouted, "Yes, Michael," and pumped his fist in the air. Michael Jr., who is in second grade, says he wants to be a lawyer.
The Goodwin family was recognized for having four students in the scholars program in grades one through 11. Tamara Goodwin said she felt extremely grateful when her first child got into the school through a lottery. In Camden, where the district's high school graduation rate is 40 percent, LEAP received double the number of applicants because there were seats available in each grade level last year, Santiago said.
Goodwin's daughter Maya, a fifth grader who wants to become a fashion designer, beamed shyly as her mother brushed back her hair. "I'm going to put it in my bedroom," she said of the certificate. "To remind you to work hard," her mother replied.