Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder of the LEAP University Academy Charter School, which has a STEM curriculum, in Camden. She is also a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University.Let me intersperse Bonilla-Santiago's words in her op-ed with some other stories about her and LEAP Academy that have been uncovered this past year.
The state takeover of public schools in New Jersey’s poorest city, Camden, last week is a move long overdue and presents a new opportunity for the local educational system to reinvent itself.
The numbers are alarming. Of the nearly 12,000 students enrolled in the district, only 49 percent completed their four years of high school in 2012. And, if you can believe it, it has been getting worse, not better. Ninety percent of Camden public schools are among the bottom 5 percent in performance in the state.Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/19/12:
To get a turnaround, courageous and transformative decisions must be made, not avoided or kicked down the road as they have been in the city for decades. The community will find many of these measures bold and controversial, but they should also be considered refreshing and uplifting.NJEA Reporter, May 2008:
It’s bad enough that administrators at Camden’s Leadership, Education and Partnership Academy University Charter School (LEAP) routinely violated state collective bargaining law by refusing to recognize the union rights of the LEAP Academy Teachers Association.Bonilla-Santiago:
Now it turns out they illegally recruited and transferred athletes for their basketball team, according to an investigation conducted by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA).
Propelled by the discovery that LEAP and other schools in New Jersey illegally transferred star athletes into their schools in order to develop winning sports teams, NJSIAA looked to find ways to avoid the impending clash between traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools. “Indeed (the LEAP case) was one factor that spurred the Committee’s decision to change the rule,” stated Baly.
As someone who runs a successful charter school in the city, I know the road that is to be traveled. If you stick to it, you will reach the change you need — and want. This is not an easy road.NJEA Reporter, March 2008:
Cohen was contacted in April 2004 by NJEA Region 4 UniServ Rep Sharon Allen as she fought to help LEAP teachers organize and become a recognized affiliate of NJEA. Santiago and LEAP Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Branch were continually foiling the teachers’ efforts to vote on NJEA affiliation. Leading the organizing campaign was LEAP Academy art teacher Tammy McGinley, who worked tirelessly to promote her colleagues’ right to organize after witnessing the anti-union actions of Santiago and her fellow administrators.
“The amount of illegal activity that occurred at this school was widespread,” said McGinley, citing the multiple observations and denial of raises over the years that her colleagues endured. If Santiago did not want to give out raises, she would simply change the level on a given teacher’s “pay for performance” evaluation, which was imposed by LEAP administration. According to McGinley, “It was surreal.”
Santiago created a climate of fear, vowing that NJEA would only come to LEAP Academy “over her dead body,” and promising she would shut the school down if a union were formed.
Prior to Allen’s arrival, anyone who previously had attempted to organize at LEAP was terminated. The turnover rate at the school was astronomical, and each time a new person came in, he or she had to be covertly educated about union membership and convinced that forming a union was the only way to stop the administration’s illegal behavior. By the time of the 2004 affiliation vote, only one teacher from the school’s 1997 original staff remained.Bonilla-Santiago:
What will change start to look like?
• The superintendent eventually chosen must have the vision of where these schools need to be and a clear strategy on how to get there. The vision is the easy part; almost anything will be better than what is here now. The way to get there is not as clear.Courier-Post, 1/30/13:
An employee of LEAP Academy University Charter School claims in a lawsuit that he was ordered to make repeated repairs to the home of the school's founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.
Mark Paoli, who was facilities manager at the Camden school for more than a decade, contends Bonilla-Santiago "routinely demanded that he perform work on her home while on LEAP Academy time and using LEAP Academy tools, equipment and supplies."Bonilla-Santiago:
Camden’s problems of poverty, violence, long-term failure and disempowerment are a challenging backdrop that must be overcome. New leadership will need to eliminate those who have not brought value to the task of educating children. This focus on accountability is a preeminent feature of the business world and is catching up in schools. As challenging as it is, cleaning house sends a message of seriousness, focus and the no-nonsense attitude that is needed to forge a new path for Camden schools and the children they serve.Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/2/13:
• Engaging all stakeholders, including charter schools and renaissance schools, is paramount because the new strategy should be about how we can collectively educate children. If this takeover is to shift the patterns of failure and undereducation in Camden schools, cynicism and blame need to be kept measured and productive. Communication among all stakeholders needs to be as frank and candid as possible, without sugar-coating past failures or sweetening down the doses of immediate change.
I learned many of these lessons in creating the LEAP Academy 15 years ago and see the need for a local quality public education system to survive and thrive.Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/19/13:
Trustees of the LEAP Academy University Charter School heard an outpouring of praise from parents Tuesday for the difference the Camden charter has made in the lives of children enrolled there, despite questions raised this week about a $24,000 raise for the school's executive chef.
The chef is the boyfriend of the school's founder and board chairwoman, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, The Inquirer reported Monday. The raise took his base salary to $95,000, about double what many teachers at the school make as well as what food-service directors in school districts make.
LEAP has resolved another issue. regaining its status as a tax-exempt organization last week. The IRS revoked that status after LEAP failed to file the required Form 990 for three consecutive years.Bonilla-Santiago:
The discourse needs to change from one that focuses on what adults need to a focus on what children need. In cities such as Camden, education can be the catalyst for turning a city around and moving in the route to prosperity.Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/12/13:
Educators and politicians can build new schools, introduce better curricula and train better teachers. But, as I have found out, if we fail to make decisions based on what children want, and deserve, we will continue to fail.
LEAP Academy’s 100 percent record of high school graduation and college placement is evidence that this can be done if we focus on what is needed for children, we have the courage to make the tough decisions, and we embrace every available resource and support.Professor Bruce Baker, Rutgers University (annotation mine):
We need everyone to be at the table — government, the anchor institutions, community leaders, the businesses and the parents. I have high hopes for the city and for the schools, and see this as an opportunity for change and prosperity.
Camden children and families deserve this and more. Let’s seize this moment.NJDOE, as reported by the Courier-Post (and re-reported on this blog), May, 2012 (annotation mine):
I would like to say that I am astonished that the Star-Ledger thinks Bonilla-Santiago was a good guest columnist to comment on the state takeover of Camden. I would also like to say that I am astonished that Bonilla-Santiago has the brass to think she is well-qualified to opine on what it will take to "transform" Camden's district given the reporting about her own school.
But, after three years of blogging about education "reform," nothing surprises me anymore: not the self-satistfied charter operators, not the puffed-up think-tanky types, not the clueless reformies running the education-industrial complex, and certainly not the credulous press that continues to give these people a platform to sell their ideology.
Far left: NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf. Immediately to his left: Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.