It’s late June and kids here at the LEAP Academy Charter School in Camden are putting the finishing touches on their end of the year projects, a fairly typical June day. But for those entering their senior year in the fall, everything is about to change. Through a partnership with local universities, all of LEAP’s 120 seniors will spend the next school year taking college courses.
“There are three reasons behind the idea,” explained LEAP Academy founder Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. “One is the kids are bored to death in their senior year, a lot of them are already taking college courses, some have been taking them since as early as ninth grade, and they voted that they wanted to have the experience for everyone and we said why not. If 75 of the 120 are already experiencing college and they’re doing well and they’re acing the courses, why not send everyone? That’s one reason. The second reason is that it’s good for parents because their kids will graduate with 30 credits, one year ahead of time.”
And the third reason, says Bonilla-Santiago is because LEAP promises parents that their kids will go to college.
Seniors Desiree Mack and Sahory Valdes are just days from graduation. They’ve been through dual enrollment college/high school courses all year, but it’s the college stuff that excited them most.
“I loved it. It was like a new step,” said Valdes. “Our senior year is just taking finals, learning things we already learned, so taking college classes is like OK, my senior year is something more, something less I can really learn.”
“It kind of changed me because I was the kind of person that was like, I know this is due in two days, but I can probably swing it one more day. But this kind of forced me to be like, get it out of the way now so when the time comes I’m not looking like a little kid compared to a room full of all these grownups,” said senior Desiree Mack.
The kids in the program — the only one of its kind in the state — concentrate on core classes: English, math, history on a number of tracks, all courses offered to college kids. But it’s the intangibles, the self motivating, the self monitoring, that makes for a successful college kid. Juniors Angela Nwankpah and Zorielie Borges say the reality of actually being a college student was the biggest lesson.
“You feel more freedom,” said Borges. “You feel like you’re really the one in charge in that situation, like when you go to class, you have to listen to what the teacher says and you know you’re obliged by their rules. But when you’re in college, you’re in charge of yourself, like if you want the education, you have to actually listen and work for it because the professors, they really don’t care if you pass or fail, either way they’re getting paid.”
Nwankpah says representing for Camden is definitely part of her mission.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “Because a lot of people talk negatively about Camden, so it’s me, like my generation, our class that is breaking that barrier. Oh, yes, we can succeed and go to college.”
Chief Operating Officer Manny Delgado says he’s not surprised when he hears students talk like. “They can see that in an environment where at other schools we still have a 50 percent dropout rate and that’s their peers,” he said. “They live in the same neighborhoods and they understand that and they’ve taken the opportunity to come to LEAP and to succeed through the school and they know they’re representing a city.”
“I have females, like little girls, come up to me and say I want to be like you when I grow up,” said Borges. “It just gives you excitement that back in the day we weren’t able to do this but, like now, we’re making new things, growing up and making new opportunities for them.”
While for most underclassmen the school year here will end next week, those entering their senior year are finding that their college careers are starting as early as this Saturday.