A child of migrant farm workers in Puerto Rico, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago defied family, tradition, and expectations to reach the highest ranks of academia and create LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) Academy University Charter School in Camden, one of the nation’s most successful charter schools.
The Rutgers University–Camden professor reflects on her arduous and inspirational journey in her engaging new autobiography, The Miracle on Cooper Street: Lessons from an Inner City, published by Archway Publishing.
“Writing the book was very challenging, because it required much objectivity and transparency in telling my story, and the ability to speak with freedom about my memories,” says Bonilla-Santiago, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers–Camden. “It required sharing very personal experiences – representing tragedy and triumph in my trajectory – which were at times very difficult and painful.”
In The Miracle on Cooper Street, Bonilla-Santiago shares the story of her personal and professional struggles as a Latina hailing from an impoverished, working-class background, surviving and fighting for respect in an academic world that many times did not value racial or ethnic diversity. As she recalls, those experiences forged in her a dream of transforming poor urban communities through education.
She also shares the challenges and obstacles, resources, and support of fellow professionals that elevated LEAP Academy from a small charter school in 1997 to its premier position today. She describes and analyzes the establishment and accomplishments of the LEAP Academy in one of America’s poorest cities.
While acknowledging that LEAP is still a work in progress, the book offers a working model for other charter schools to follow, as well as a veritable guide for anyone interested in making a difference in the lives of children living in urban communities. Through words of wit and wisdom, the Rutgers–Camden distinguished professor explains how she built an educational pipeline from infancy to college, one supported by LEAP alumni who are recruited to return to Camden and do their part in fostering the mission of the school. The book lays out the process, the lessons learned, and the best practices that can be utilized by others.
Most importantly, says Bonilla-Santiago, the book describes an inspiring institution that has seen many young people break the cycle of poverty, graduate from high school, succeed in college, and go on to live productive lives.
“First and foremost, this book is about all the young people who have inspired me, my amazing children at LEAP Academy, whom I love dearly,” says Bonilla-Santiago. “They are the most remarkable and resilient young people I have ever met. Their stories and mine are intertwined in mind and soul, and I see myself every day in them. This is a story of the American dream come true, a story of mostly poor immigrant parents who only want the best education for their children, and children who prove every day they have the potential to achieve at the highest level.”
LEAP Academy currently enrolls 1,400 students. To date, the school counts 513 alumni, with 160 more students set to graduate this May. Alumni have gone on to attend a who’s who of top-flight institutions of higher learning, including Rutgers, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Temple, Villanova, and Wesleyan.
With a pipeline beginning in infancy, there are currently 80 babies and toddlers and 135 preschoolers enrolled in the early childhood programs in LEAP’s affiliated Early Learning Research Academy.
A resident of Voorhees, Bonilla Santiago earned a bachelor’s degree from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University), a master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University–New Brunswick, and master’s and doctoral degrees from City University of New York. She is the author of numerous articles and two other books: Breaking Ground and Barriers: Hispanic Women Developing Effective Leadership and Organizing Puerto Rican Migrant Farmworkers: The Experience of Puerto Ricans in New Jersey. She is also a blogger for U.S. World News & World Report and The Huffington Post, and is a commentator for ABC, NBC, and CBS news programs on issues concerning education.