By Cherri Gregg, Cleve Bryan

CAMDEN, N.J. (CBS) — A charter school in Camden, NJ today marked the beginning of renovations on an historic building on North Broadway.

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The work on the “Wilson Building” skyscraper will be a major milestone in the revitalization of a neighborhood.  Once neglected and a magnet for crime, the Cooper Street area is being transformed into an education corridor.

“This historical landmark building was one of the few buildings abandoned that we have rehabilitated totally,” notes Gloria Bonilla Santiago, who started Leap Academy University Charter School in 1997.

Over the past two decades, the school has slowly revitalized Cooper Street and, in April of next year, the Wilson building will open, adding state-of-the-art facilities for its 1,300 students.

“We will have a wellness center here as well as a fitness center, as well as a college access center,” Santiago tells KYW Newsradio.

Christina Roman, a senior at Leap Academy, started at the school in ninth grade.  The Rowan University hopeful says the new campus, with its excellent facilities, forces her to raise her standards and work harder to achieve her goals.

“They expect you to be great,” she notes.

The new building will also include a student café and a fabrication laboratory, with 3-D printers.

As CBS 3’s Cleve Bryan reports, this will be the fifth building along between 5th and 7th Streets along Cooper Street to house LEAP since it started in 1997.

“We have made a miracle in Cooper Street by transforming the whole education corridor,” says Bonilla-Santiago.

LEAP boasts a 100 percent graduation rate for the last 10 years and credits longer than normal school hours, merit-based teacher pay and mandatory parent participation.

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“We hold everybody accountable here. From the parents, the children, the teachers – everyone is accountable for the work,” says Bonilla-Santiago.

“I don’t know if me or any of my family members would be in college of going to college if it wasn’t for what we get right here at LEAP,” says LEAP 12th grader Jose Santiago.

Some have concerns with LEAP expanding.

Camden’s teacher union is against the expansion of charter schools and researchers find Camden charters have disproportionately low numbers of special education and English as a second-language students.

“As LEAP expands assuming that its population stays different than the district, that concentrates the more challenging students in the Camden District Schools,” says Rutgers University associate professor Julia Sass Rubin who co-authored a study on the populations in New Jersey’s charter schools.

City Council president Frank Moran says his concern is results and LEAP has them.

I see the success of it- 100 percent graduation rate, college entry and that’s what it’s all about. If we can educate our children and get them into college and have them come back and be productive citizens in our community it’s what we support,” says Moran.



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