Harvard, Princeton and Cornell University pennants line the school’s entryway, teachers lecturing in college-style classrooms can be seen from doorway windows and photos of smiling graduates proudly displaying diplomas hang on the walls.
For students at Camden, New Jersey’s LEAP (Leadership, Education, And Partnership) Academy, it’s not a question of if you will attend college, but where you will go.
With tags like “America’s most desperate town” and “New Jersey’s most dangerous city“, Camden has long been known for its high violence and poverty rates, so LEAP, a charter high school boasting a 100 percent college placement rate for 11 years in a row, is a rarity in the area.
And this stigma is exactly what drove LEAP founder Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago to open the kindergarten through 12th grade college prep academy 18 years ago.
“The saying in Camden used to be ‘from cradle to prison,’ ” Dr. Bonilla-Santiago, 61, tells PEOPLE. “But we’re changing that mentality. We’re changing it to ‘from cradle to college.’ ”
Since its inception in 1997, LEAP Academy, which accepts students based on a lottery system and waiting list, has helped nearly 750 minority students pursue higher education – 95 percent of those were first-generation college attendees.
The school works hard to instill what they call a “college bound mentality” in students starting as early as elementary school. Bonilla-Santiago finds that surrounding LEAP kids with positive reinforcements, like the photos of college graduates on walls of the hallway or the Ivy League school pennants, acts as a constant reminder to students of the possibilities open to them.
Rob Ransom, a first-generation college student, didn t think he could ever afford college, let alone law school, but the Howard University grad and current Rutgers University law student received full rides to both institutions after graduating from LEAP in 2009.
“Access to college wasn’t exposed to me growing up. My dad worked two, three, four jobs at a time just to make ends meet,” Ransom, who now sits on the school’s board of trustees, tells PEOPLE. “This school gave me the ability to have a dream and then hope to make it happen. So many times people tell you ‘no’ growing up, college isn’t possible. But nobody graduates from here thinking they can’t do something. You graduate knowing whatever college you go to, you can go on to do anything.”
The 23-year-old adds, “College is cool now, and that wasn’t a mentality you saw in Camden before LEAP.”
The students at LEAP are primarily African American or Latino, and most lack the financial support to afford higher education, but the school works to ensure that every student receives some type of scholarship or financial aid package so they can attend college.
“College begins at birth here,” Khary Golden, director of college access, tells PEOPLE. “LEAP erases boundaries for students, they don t have to think about affording college or whether they’ll be able to keep up once they’re there. Every student deserves a chance to attend college and we provide them with the knowledge and resources to get there.”
Seventeen-year-old Zachiely Cruz, a LEAP senior and a Camden resident for 12 years, tells PEOPLE her city is changing for the better, and kids have “begun to see potential in themselves and recognize they are special, that they matter.”
“I have friends that are teenage moms who don’t think they can go to college, and I tell them, ‘Don’t let your baby be the reason why you don t go to college, you can still make it even if you have a child!'” she says. “At LEAP they don’t talk about dreams, they talk about the future – about college. Because it’s not a dream if you know it is going to happen, and I think that idea is catching on in Camden.”
Cruz just submitted her first of many college applications and would like to pursue a degree in child psychology, after losing several close friends to gun violence in 2011.
“I didn t have anyone to talk to at the time and I really needed that,” she says. “I want to get my degree and move back to Camden to help people who may struggle with those feelings I experienced. Coming to LEAP, I now know that’s possible.
She adds, “I can do anything I want and I can make an impact. It sounds cheesy, but anything is possible.”