By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau
It was conceived as an opportunity, to give underperforming students at a neighboring public high school free, individualized math and English homework help in a safe environment where they also could grab a bag of Teddy Grahams and watch a little television after studying. But in just four months, the Grand Canyon University Learning Lounge has evolved into an experience for more than 150 Alhambra High students, some who have now passed Arizona’s high school graduation test and are contemplating their careers.
“Last fall, these Alhambra students were worried about graduating from high school,” said Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s director of K-12 outreach, of which the Learning Lounge is the crown jewel. “Now, they’re getting college life experience, building relationships with our 30 tutors and thinking about going to college.”
In its second semester of operation, the Lounge is expanding its outreach, hiring more tutors and requesting extra meals from a partnering community food bank and, soon, moving to GCU’s new four-story classroom building. Also, starting this month, tutors will travel to Faith Christian School in east Mesa, and students from Maryvale High will be bused to GCU’s campus, to begin tutoring sessions.
“When I saw it, I absolutely loved it,” said Dr. Wendy Truvillion, a Maryvale assistant principal. “We want our kids to be tutored by college students and have that college experience on a college campus.”
The Learning Lounge was launched in September in the old GCU Annex just west of campus. It was envisioned by Brian Mueller, GCU’s CEO and president, and championed by the Phoenix Union High School District and Alhambra’s principal, Claudio Coria, and its teachers and staff. Word spread quickly at Alhambra that the Lounge, a chill place that handed out free T-shirts and mugs, was open from 3 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
Passing the AIMS
Alhambra seniors Sarahi Chavez and Isaul Rodriguez were among those who showed up early and often. As a result of working several days a week with tutor Leslie Pace, each passed the writing portion of the AIMS test. Chavez graduated in December, and Rodriguez has straight A’s and is on track to graduate in May. Both students are Mexican immigrants who only learned English within the past few years.
“We just went slowly, and we were able to spend a lot of time together,” said Pace, a freshman majoring in web design. “They were willing to work, and they had a lot of discipline. We’d take small breaks to have a snack, but sometimes they didn’t want to stop to eat.
“At first, they didn’t like to read in front of me because they weren’t very confident, but they eventually saw that I didn’t care if they butchered a word,” she said. “It was cool to see them become more comfortable and confident.”
Chavez, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States at age 15, had tried to pass the test four times previously. She said Pace was a great teacher who not only improved her writing skills but also her confidence. Chavez said she did it for her brother, 12-year-old Isaac, and plans to don her cap and gown and walk in Alhambra’s May graduation ceremony for him, too.
“I want him to see that if I can do it, he can do it also,” said Chavez, who hopes to go to college and become a family therapist.
Chavez, Rodriguez and four other Alhambra students passed the AIMS test last semester. The tutors worked with nearly 175 students, about six percent of the school’s population, and provided 139 days – 835 hours – of extra instructional time during the Lounge’s first 60 days.
“Our priorities are still to increase math and English scores of ninth-graders, where we can have the most impact, to build their confidence and support our partner schools,” Veres said. “But we are also seeing other needs, the junior or senior who says, ‘Hey, I need help.’ We don’t turn anyone away.”
Making way for more students
Students at Bourgade Catholic High, a GCU educational partner about a mile south of campus, also were invited to the Lounge last semester. The school plans to use it more this spring, said Assistant Principal Vicki Kilgarriff.
“This is a great opportunity that’s right in our back yard,” Kilgarriff said. “The Learning Lounge really supplements what we already do for our struggling students, but we also are interested in using it for our kids who want to get even further ahead.”
In November, the Lounge and its overstuffed chairs and couches, stacks of books and CDs, study tables and computers were relocated to Building 9 on campus. With the move came the start of daily deliveries by St. Mary’s Food Bank of nutritious meals for the students, an arrangement suggested by September Lopez, a GCU graduate student in professional counseling.
The Lounge was an ideal place for the food bank to establish a Kids Cafe, nearly 100 of which exist at metro Phoenix locations close to schools with large numbers of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, said Lopez, a child nutrition specialist at the food bank.
“A lot of our sites have the younger kids, so whenever we have the opportunity to reach teenagers, we’re excited about that,” Lopez said.
Currently, St. Mary’s delivers each week about 100 meals, which have a variety of offerings from the five food groups. The quantity will expand with student demand this spring.
“This is a great partnership because we know that children can’t pay attention in the classroom and their academic well-being is affected if they’re hungry,” said David Martinez, St. Mary’s community outreach manager. “Kids should be growing and learning and playing, not worrying about where they’re going to find their next meal.”
Having seen and heard what has been accomplished at Alhambra, Maryvale is all in. At a time when public school funding is tight, the school, which is about four miles southwest of GCU, has found money to pay for two buses to bring up to 110 juniors and seniors to the Lounge, initially once a week. The tutors will offer reading help in social studies, science and other content areas, in addition to math, writing and AIMS test-preparation assistance.
Tutors also will travel weekly to Faith Christian School, another GCU educational partner. Although tutoring will be open to all 100 students, Dick Buckingham, the school’s administrator, said its 18 international students have the greatest learning needs.
“We are so grateful for the many different ways GCU has reached out to high schools to support and encourage students, and we are especially excited to be part of the Learning Lounge,” Buckingham said.
To handle the influx of new students, GCU is hiring up to 20 additional tutors. Noting that none of the original 30 tutors hired last semester has quit, Veres said he and program coordinator Arlin Guadian have been flooded with qualified applicants who have heard the Lounge is a good place to work on campus. When not bearing down on the books, the tutors and students may pore over magazines such as National Geographic and Entrepreneur or play games such as Scrabble and Yahtzee.
Veres said he is amazed that, with TV, food and games as potential distractions, the students are usually focused on one thing. “These kids want to spend a majority of their time face-to-face with the tutors,” he said.
He credits the tutors – who, as originally advertised in the job description, possess the motivation, smarts and passion to serve others and the Lord – with making the program successful. “Our students made this what it is,” he said. “It’s ‘Find Your Purpose’ in action.”
Capturing the data
Viewed as a potential national model, the Lounge has captured the interest of GCU’s College of Doctoral Studies. The tutors have been chronicling their experiences in journals, and the data will be analyzed and reported as early as next fall, said doctoral chair Wayne Schmidt.
“We recognize the Learning Lounge has a bazillion research opportunities: What kind of teaching or enrichment practices are the most effective? Does the student learn more from having the same tutor who becomes almost a life mentor? What is the most effective way to help the student?” Schmidt said. “We’ll also get qualitative data on what happens on the tutor side, and then we can start to map what kind of people we should be looking for to become tutors.
“From a real-world standpoint, we see this as a model that is replicable in other places, if we can say what is effective and not effective, and the benefits derived to the individual students, the tutors and the organization.”
Shortly before Christmas break, Chavez and Rodriguez dropped by the Lounge to tell Pace they had passed the AIMS and to give her a candy bar in gratitude. They said they probably wouldn’t be back.
“I do miss them,” Pace said. “It’s cool to be able to encourage someone that they can get through high school, they can make good grades and, one day, go to college if they want to. It feels good to have helped change someone’s life like that.”
Contact Janie Magruder at 639.8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.