Academic Excellence program embraces schools
This story is reprinted from the February issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
First of a four-part series
Story by Theresa Smith
Photos by David Kadlubowski
Before Grand Canyon University students took over the classrooms once a week at Westwood Elementary School, the teacher signal for “quiet” was a raised hand. These days, it is a Lopes Up. Chants of “GCU” can be heard in the halls. GCU Learning Lounge T-shirts are worn with pride. Thank you notes are lovingly drawn for the GCU students, known as pre-service resident teachers, primarily juniors and seniors gaining accelerated teaching experiences.
“Our students get very excited when they see the GCU students,” Westwood Principal Theresa Killingsworth said. “The fun part about it is that now GCU has become part of our culture here. They are the familiar faces the kids see nearly every day.
“It is not like this is a group of people coming in to help us – it is one family. We are all together to improve the education of our kids.”
The pre-service resident teaching program at Westwood, located about a mile east of the University, is one of five major services provided by a team of GCU departments – including K-12 Educational Development, the College of Education (COE) and the Learning Lounge, which offers free academic assistance to local K-12 students. Westwood, which includes pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade students, is the first of three designated Academic Excellence Site (AES) schools, along with Andersen Junior High in Chandler and Rhodes Junior High in Mesa. All three schools are classified by the federal government as Title 1, meaning they have a high percentage of low-income families.
The connection between GCU students and the children attending the East Valley schools will differ from the setup at Westwood, partly because of the distance between campuses. Led by Dr. Marjaneh Gilpatrick, Executive Director for K-12 Outreach for the COE, GCU students will integrate into Andersen and Rhodes to gain required practicum hours or to acquire student-teaching placement.
Under the direction of Assistant Professor Jena Akard, the pre-service resident teaching program began at Garcia Elementary in 2017-18 and moved to Westwood in August.
The AES K-12 initiative is an important component of GCU President Brian Mueller’s five-point plan to revitalize the community, which also includes increasing home values through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, making neighborhoods safer through an initiative with the Phoenix Police Department, and creating jobs both on and off campus by launching business enterprises that lead to employment opportunities for graduates, students and neighborhood residents.
AES, likewise, has five components:
• The pre-service resident teaching program
• Access to the Learning Lounge
• Canyon P.D., which provides AES school teachers access to GCU’s Professional Development curriculum
• Leadership coaching for administrators
• Parent View, offering parents of AES students educational workshops and campus visits
“Sometimes colleges do professional development or they’ll send college students to tutor, but the comprehensive nature of wrapping all of these services around a single site and coordinating those services internally and then making sure they are tailored to what the school actually needs is unique,” said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, Director of Academic Alliances and a former superintendent of Glendale Union High School District.
Another novelty is the price. With the exception of some professional development fees, there is no charge to the schools for GCU’s services and support.
“It is a long-term investment when you work with kindergartners through fourth-graders,” Johnson said. “They will get the vision of what going to college really is and they’ll begin to pay more attention to the academic success they experience.”
Thunder Vision is clear
That proved to be the case for students from Andersen Junior High, according to their principal, Dr. Joyce Meyer.
“Some of my students were there for Thunder Vision in early December and they were amazed,” Meyer said. “A lot of my kids hadn’t been out of the neighborhood, so to be able to go onto a university campus and tour it was incredible for them.”
Similarly, Killingsworth is excited about the results she’s seeing, fostered by both the pre-service resident teachers and the learning advocates (LEADs) from the Learning Lounge.
“They excite the kids,” she said. “Their presence gives them a vision. All of my kids are telling me, ‘When I grow up, I want to go to GCU.’”
Documented early returns at Westwood support her optimism. The third- and fourth-graders attending the Learning Lounge for math assistance averaged 75 percent typical growth last semester, 16.5 percent more than all Westwood students in those two grades.
“The K-12 targeted school assistance initiative is both supporting the goals of schools with which we are partnered and meeting GCU’s goal to provide relevant, meaningful and impactful learning and serving opportunities for our students,” said Dr. Tacy Ashby, Senior Vice President of K-12 Educational Development. “This is a win-win relationship.”
But the relationship goes beyond teaching and mentoring. To figuratively embrace the Westwood school nickname (Teddy Bears), Johnson arranged for every student to get a teddy bear through donations by GCU employees and students and with the help of a $1,000 pledge from the Bill Luke car dealership. Moreover, GCU encourages employees to consider Westwood in the Donate to Elevate state tax credit.
“It starts with an idea between two organizations, and then that goodness just spreads,” Killingsworth said. “And then people in the community are jumping on board – our children, our families and employees of GCU. It shows how we can work together to make things better for everybody.”
Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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