The words most often used to describe Camden, New Jersey have been equal parts fearful and unflattering: Dangerous. Criminal. Impoverished.
Many forget Camden was a city once gleaming with industry, known as a city of manufacturing and innovation. But 50 years of economic downturn following World War II shifted Camden from famous to infamous - as crime, poverty, and civil unrest took over.
After several unsuccessful attempts at revitalization, and long after the mass exodus of the remaining middle class families, community leaders began investing time and efforts into those who would someday be able to turn the city around: the youngest among them.
20 years later, it's been dubbed "The Miracle on Cooper Street", a group of five buildings operating under the umbrella of the LEAP Academy Charter School (Leadership, Education, and Partnership). The school, through its partnership with Rutgers University - Camden, provides education to students from Kindergarten through 12th Grade, and through its two decades of success, it has become an example for charter schools across the country.
The students of the LEAP Academy Charter School have achieved a 100% graduation rate in its 20 years of existence - an unheard of achievement in education. Students who were written off by their peers and political leaders have proven the world wrong, and it's all because of the vision of Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, an educator so dedicated to serving poor children and families that she would not have created this school anywhere but Camden.
Today, LEAP serves more than 1,700 students from infancy through college, and they achieve 100% graduation through simply stressing the value of education and by instilling the believe that every student will one day get a college education from the time they are kindergarteners. Many families who face financial hardships are also assisted through a scholarship bearing the name of Dr. Santiago's late husband, Alfredo.
The LEAP Academy has been a central part of the revitalization of Camden. Many of the school's very first students from 20 years ago have since graduated college and are working and giving back to the city in ways that were perhaps not thought possible years ago. And as Camden begins to welcome back industry in the form of the Philadelphia 76ers, Lockheed Martin, Subaru, and American Water, among others, LEAP has been a mainstay and a key in the development and beautification of the city's waterfront.