COE staffer reunited with mentor LaPrade
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
The signs were clear. Joanna Simpson felt she was called to return to Grand Canyon University, where she earned both her master’s and doctorate degrees in education.
Simpson had worked in Georgia for a couple of years, moving her husband and two young children there, but immediately felt God’s hand in her life when she saw a job posting for GCU’s College of Education. She left a tenure-track position as an assistant English professor at Kennesaw State University north of Atlanta to join COE as one of three program directors developing curriculum for future generations of professional teachers.
The return to Phoenix was also a reunion of sorts since Simpson credits her former high school teacher, COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, with helping her academically and steering her toward college. The two became friends at Alhambra High School, where LaPrade (then Miss Long) taught English and Simpson graduated with honors. Simpson even met her husband, Jason, in LaPrade’s freshman English class.
The opportunity to work side by side with LaPrade, whom Simpson described as her “guardian angel,” made the decision easy. When few other adults were able to, LaPrade was the one who encouraged Simpson to harness her intellect.
Simpson recalled when LaPrade took her to a bookstore to get her a gift for winning a poetry contest. The joy of that experience seems like just yesterday. Now she’s shaping GCU curriculum and working on three separate books related to teaching gifted teens and young adults.
“(Dr. LaPrade) taught me that the limits set on me by my socioeconomic status were invisible, and that I could break free from them,” said Simpson, who grew up in a low-income family in west Phoenix. “All I had to do was show up and try.”
Simpson certainly showed up and tried hard, though growing up near Indian School Road and 31st Avenue provided distractions that often led her to doubt her intellectual gifts. She was labeled a gifted student, which led her throughout her career as a teacher — eight years as an English teacher at Alhambra, Central and Dysart high schools in Phoenix — to focus on helping students in similar situations to reach their potential.
In her GCU doctoral dissertation, Simpson explored the needs of gifted students. She addressed the need to bridge traditional K-8 gifted coursework with high school gifted education to avoid breaks in childhood development.
While many intellectually advanced children might read or write beyond their age groups, Simpson said, few are emotionally advanced beyond their peers — so advancing beyond that immediate peer group can lead to emotional challenges, which many teens struggle with amid the pressure of school.
For Simpson, that doctoral research experience was personal, both because of her upbringing as a gifted high school student and because of the sadness caused by the suicide of one of her gifted seniors at Central High years ago.
As LaPrade mentored her in high school, Simpson had mentored the suicidal student, whose death rocked her classroom and campus. She decided to dedicate herself to find ways to help all students reach their true potential.
“I felt like I was researching myself,” Simpson said of her GCU doctoral studies. “I wanted to know why brilliant students were feeling so emotionally disconnected.”
LaPrade, who served as content chair on Simpson’s dissertation last year, began as an assistant professor at COE in 2007 and has served as dean for four years. In that time, the college has grown from about 60 students on ground and online to more than 1,000 students in ground courses and more than 15,000 online today.
She said seeing Simpson’s success and having her return to GCU made her feel more like a “proud mom” than a teacher or boss.
“I’ve never had a doubt that Joanna would succeed,” LaPrade said. “She’s always been gifted. … She’s always been a bright light — positive, funny.”
LaPrade and Simpson, who’s also served as a COE adjunct, seem to cross paths at key life moments. For her first student teaching assignment, Simpson had requested to work at Alhambra but found herself assigned to LaPrade’s English department at Central.
“Some of it feels very serendipitous,” LaPrade said. “But I also feel there’s this greater hand in this connection. It always keeps coming back … always feels like a perfect fit.”
At GCU, they’re tackling a critical challenge for Arizona, which is in the midst of a teacher shortage. Last week, The Arizona Republic cited Arizona Department of Education data that revealed that while the state has 95,000 certified teachers, only about 52,000 are teaching this year.
Because of the shortage, some Arizona schools are hiring teachers from other states and even other countries.
Simpson’s team, which includes Dr. Karol Schmidt and Dr. Michael Trevillion, addresses program design and development. Few weeks pass where one of the three isn’t at Department of Education meetings, following trends in Arizona education so GCU can continue to meet the needs of its students.
“We have a voice there,” Simpson said. “It’s not just the public schools. We’re there too, so we’re able to help address the teacher shortage in Arizona.”
While she just started in early August, Simpson said she feels right at home at GCU and sees herself staying here for years to come.
“I feel like (GCU) is my last (employer) and that I’ll never have to interview anywhere else ever again,” she said.
Contact Michael Ferraresi at [email protected] or 602-639-7030.