Rutgers Breaks Ground on John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy in Camden

CAMDEN --  More than 150 people gathered earlier today for a special groundbreaking ceremony commemorating the start of construction for the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy on the Rutgers–Camden Campus.

When completed, the $3.9 million, three-story facility at 501 Cooper Street will provide 62 Camden children with a physical environment designed to promote the development of early learning and cognition functions that will help these children throughout their lives.

Additionally, the Knight ELRA will allow Rutgers professors to apply their scholarly research toward the societal and educational issues challenging successful childhood learning.

Supported by a $2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to the Rutgers–Camden Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership, the project will provide 12,174 square feet of space that will include two classrooms for toddlers; one classroom for infants; two pre-school classrooms; three observation rooms for viewing classrooms; a Child Study Lab; and a clinical space for health-related matters.  A secured outdoor play area will be installed at the ground level.

The John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy at Rutgers–Camden is scheduled for occupancy by September 2011.  Fundraising is under way for a subsequent second phase of construction that would add space for learning and research endeavors, and expand the number of children served to 122.

Additional funding for the current phase of construction includes $1 million from the Camden Economic Recovery Board and $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development.  Interested families will be able to apply for a random “lottery” selection process starting in January 2011.

“The Knight ELRA will provide a welcoming physical environment that is healthy, safe, aesthetically beautiful, and culturally sensitive to young children.  It will facilitate research interactions with rigorous technical sophistication, flexibility, comfort, visual delight, and inspiration, thereby setting the stage for constructive engagement and collaboration,” explains Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Rutgers University Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and founder of both the LEAP Academy University Charter School and the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy.

“The Knight ELRA will focus on the five areas of development and skills that are critical to a child's readiness for school:  physical well being and motor development; social and emotional development; approaches to learning; language; and cognition and general knowledge.  Children who have competence across all five domains of school readiness are more successful in first grade academically than are children who have competence in only one or two domain, according to child trends research.”

Bonilla-Santiago notes that Knight ELRA children and families will work with Rutgers researchers to address psychological, health, social, and learning processes that are fundamental to the development of children and healthy functioning of families.  “Having this kind of interaction and access available to Rutgers faculty and students provides fertile ground for a variety of research efforts that can contribute new knowledge required to meet the needs of urban children in Camden and beyond,” she says.      

The facility, located on Rutgers property on the 500 block of Cooper Street, is designed by the architectural firm The Biber Partnership in Summit, NJ.  Michael Riesz and Company in Ford, NJ, serves as the general contractor. 

The ceremonial groundbreaking featured such dignitaries as U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and U.S. Representative Robert Andrews; Rochelle Hendricks, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education; Donna Frisby-Greenwood, program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Camden families, children, and community leaders; and members of the Rutgers community.

“Rutgers, as the state university, is committed to helping New Jersey address issues that are fundamental to our success and prosperity, including the optimal way to help urban children grow and succeed.  Indeed, this Academy will add another important component to the ever-growing array of programs at Rutgers that aim to make life better for children from their earliest years,” says Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick.   

The John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy at Rutgers–Camden will be affiliated with the LEAP (Leadership, Education, And Partnership) Academy University Charter School program, founded by Bonilla-Santiago.

Launched in 1997 as one of New Jersey’s very first charter schools, LEAP serves 870 children in grades pre-K through 12.  Every student graduating from the LEAP Academy University High School has been accepted into college.  The LEAP initiative has replicated its best practices in serving children and their families at schools across the state and region.

The relationship between Rutgers and LEAP will allow researchers at the Knight ELRA to track the efficacy of their programs as the student progress through elementary and high school.

“We are enthusiastic about supporting construction of this new building and we are proud that the Knight brothers’ names will be permanently associated with this educational landmark. But above all, we are enthusiastic about supporting the transformative work that will take place within this setting,” says Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Knight Foundation program director for Philadelphia and Camden.  

“The Abbott decision mandated state-supported pre-school in New Jersey’s lowest income school districts. The creation of this academy represents one of the most significant steps to date in seizing the opportunity created by the Abbott decision,” continues Frisby-Greenwood.  “This new venture will provide a great laboratory for developing the kind of programs that can make a real difference in terms of educational and community impact.”

Bonilla-Santiago notes that the Rutgers center offers an “ahead of the curve” program to nurture the youngest minds in Camden. “The partnership between Rutgers and Knight Foundation is exactly the sort of innovative thinking needed to advance public education for our children.”

The new facility will serve “everyone from children just learning to crawl to doctoral students conducting cutting-edge research that will define the childhood experience for years to come,” notes Bonilla-Santiago.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. For more information, visit

The Camden Campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, enrolls 6,300 undergraduate and graduate students.  Rutgers–Camden faculty are respected internationally for their significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge across many disciplines.  The 40-acre campus is located in the heart of the University District at the Camden Waterfront.  

EDITOR/REPORTER:  For additional information about the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Marc Fest, vice president for communications, at 305-908-2677 or

Camden Campus, Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey
Contact:    Mike Sepanic
(856) 225-6026

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit