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LEAPing into urban education with a system that works

Rochester Business Journal
December 27, 2013

I am a big proponent of the public school system--when it works. It was the public school system that helped make this country great. But as we all know, in many communities people do not want to pay taxes to support the school system and in other communities people do not have the resources to pay taxes to support the school system. It did not help that many people with means fled the cities for the suburbs, where they were more willing to pay higher taxes to support good schools.
Whether it was the chicken or the egg, our public school system in urban areas is failing us.
It is interesting that other countries seem to recognize the importance of education and are putting resources into educating their populace. From a strategic perspective, one might wonder what that portends.
One of the solutions to the problem of failing urban schools that has gained some traction is charter schools. However, charter schools are not a panacea. Their results are inconsistent. Research shows that some charter schools underperform public schools, others produce similar results, and some outperform public schools. I had the occasion to visit one of the latter along with my colleague, Kit Mayberry, vice president for strategic planning and special initiatives at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Kit and I went down to Camden, N.J., to visit the LEAP (Leadership, Education and Partnership) Academy University Charter School, a K-12 public charter school associated with Rutgers University-Camden. We both were extremely impressed with the school; it is a national model for charter schools and for urban education.
LEAP's success is due to its founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, who had a clear vision of what a good charter school should be. A distinguished professor at Rutgers-Camden (the highest level of professor at Rutgers), she created a framework that had the clear purpose of preparing students to attend and graduate from college. A core principle of LEAP Academy is that "all children and families deserve access to a quality public education," and it gives urban children a holistic, high-quality education that guarantees them the opportunity to earn a college degree. And in fact, it has a 100 percent graduation rate and all of its students go to colleges all over the country.
Bonilla-Santiago has brilliantly designed, developed and implemented a program and practices that are tailored to the needs of the Camden community. LEAP consists of three schools: a K-6 LEAP Lower School, a 7-12 LEAP Upper School, and a 9-12 LEAP STEM High School. It also has a business school embedded in the Upper School.
LEAP has high expectations for its teachers, staff and students, and those expectations are infused throughout the academy. The curriculum is innovative and rigorous, but the students are eager and enthusiastic learners. They are ahead of grade level, and many upper-class students take college courses at local colleges with regular college students. I met several of them, and they were acing their courses.
We visited several classes, and based on the lesson on which they were working, I asked them questions. In one class, I asked them to spell a series of words. Almost all the hands went up when I posed a question-quite different from what happens when I teach undergraduate and master's courses. It turned out that the words the students spelled were ones they had not yet studied. But spell them correctly, they did.
We visited a Lower School class, and the students were doing algebra. In the second-grade class, I asked a series of math questions and the hands shot up; the kids really knew their math. Then I started asking more complex math questions, and although they hadn't studied those types of questions, they figured out the answers. One question stumped all the kids but one little girl.
The teacher was amazed at her students' performance; they exceeded even her high expectations. It was thrilling for everyone in our group to see students who loved to learn, who were eager to solve problems and show off their knowledge. These Latino and African-American kids flew in the face of every stereotype about inner-city kids.
Bonilla-Santiago has a system that works. She carefully selects who will teach in her school, using a probing process to determine if the candidates are suitable for teaching in the urban setting; she makes sure they are trained and continue to improve their skills. She encourages thoughtful innovation. Her passion about learning and about educating children, and her vision that all of her students can achieve at high levels, is shared by everyone in the LEAP Academy. She has fostered collaboration with parents, city officials, Rutgers University and the state of New Jersey.
As a noted researcher, Bonilla-Santiago uses data to determine what works and to improve the effectiveness of the curriculum. The children learn both Spanish and English (proper Spanish and standard American English) without disparaging their conversational languages. Being bilingual helps their cognitive development as well as their language skills. The children also take arts courses and do practical, hands-on service learning activities. As an example, Camden has terrible water. Teams of students created ways to clean the water, and one such project is now being evaluated for its commercial potential.

Bonilla-Santiago exemplifies what a school administrator should be. She is charismatic, collaborative, a great fundraiser, a holistic and strategic thinker and a passionate advocate for her community and its children. She has the ability to set priorities while dealing with a multitude of problems; she is a systems thinker.

She also has the ability to manage resources, and while she is a visionary, she also knows how to determine what can be realistically accomplished or what needs to be changed to make her plans work. She is a wonderful motivator, as is evident when you visit LEAP. With her high standards, she has created both hope and success for children whose intelligence and talent otherwise would have been wasted in a dysfunctional public school. She has literally saved lives with LEAP Academy and her holistic academic support model.

dt ogilvie is dean of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.

12/27/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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