Expanding LEAP Academy creates cradle-to-college fund

November 20, 2013: LEAP Academy University Charter School fourth grader Ariyanna Bloodworth poses for her family after being awarded a ceremonial scholarship by the school in Camden. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
November 20, 2013: LEAP Academy University Charter School fourth grader Ariyanna Bloodworth poses for her family after being awarded a ceremonial scholarship by the school in Camden. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 11, 2014

CAMDEN Camden's largest charter network again is expanding its footprint: After purchasing a 1920s skyscraper for additional classroom space, it now is establishing an endowment for early-childhood education and college readiness, to the tune of $3 million.

LEAP Academy University Charter purchased the nine-story Wilson Building in January and, on Tuesday, secured a bond not to exceed $10 million to complete renovations in the space, built for office and retail tenants.

On Wednesday, officials gathered again, this time to celebrate receiving a $1.5 million matching grant.

The donation from the John E. Morgan Foundation will go toward the Early Learning Research Academy, a research unit at Rutgers-Camden that provides early-childhood education to 126 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Federal funding for early-childhood education kicks in at age 3, which LEAP founder Gloria Bonilla-Santiago said was too late.

"Every piece of research I've done shows social, emotional, cognitive issues all have to be attended to before 3 years old, and there's no funding 0-3."

Bonilla-Santiago's cradle-to-college model begins with the ELRA and continues through high school. The campus serves 1,400 children and will expand to the Wilson building in the fall.

The wait-list for the ELRA is 500 students. "I could open two more centers," Bonilla-Santiago said, "if I had the money."

The school has five years to match the $1.5 million from the foundation, which previously gave a $100,000 anonymous donation.

The foundation's namesake, John E. Morgan, was a manufacturer who, in the late 1950s, invented the waffle stitch used in long underwear and blankets. Until his death at age 89 in 2001, he was a generous donor to education and health care - causes his foundation continues to champion.

Last year, Bonilla-Santiago launched the Alfredo Santiago Scholarship in honor of her late husband, which promised college tuition to Rutgers University for students who graduated from LEAP and were accepted into the school.

According to the charter, 100 percent of graduates have attended college in the 10 years there have been graduating classes.

LEAP alumnus Omar Samaniego, a sophomore at Rutgers-Camden, attended the news conference and commended the charter.

"They are denouncing the argument that our inner-city children can't compete with suburban neighbors," he said.

In Camden, the number of charter and Renaissance schools - hybrid district-charter schools - is increasing, draining funds from the district budget, which faces a $75 million gap this year. Transfer funds from the district budget have increased from $55 million this year to a projected $72 million next school year.

One in four city students now attends a charter school. Meanwhile, 23 of the 26 public schools have been categorized by the state as failing.

The city has said three Renaissance schools would open in the fall, despite receiving approval from the state for only one of them.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has said he wanted to create a universal enrollment system and catalog so parents could keep track of additions to the school landscape and enter one lottery system, instead of individual school lotteries.

Bonilla-Santiago called such a system premature.

"The point of universal enrollment is to provide choice to parents. We believe that's wonderful if your schools are good and you can provide wonderful choices. But what choice do we have here? There's no choice when you're giving me a list of failing schools," she said. "The priority should be to fix the schools, strengthen them, or else you're presenting a fallacy, and you're going to have parents who are very upset."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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