Neighborhood school empowered by GCU
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
Lizeth Corrales told the assembled at her high school graduation in June that this life milestone was launched a few years before on a class trip to Washington, D.C.
On her first-ever airplane ride, teachers shared their “hopes and dreams for us,” said the class salutatorian. “We cried a lot.
“Once people believe in you, you start to believe in yourself in a different way.”
Corrales was in the first graduating class of Empower College Prep, just across the freeway from Grand Canyon University, which shares educational alliances, mentoring and teachers with the neighborhood school that gives hope to economically challenged families and their children.
Corrales and all of her fellow 42 graduates of the charter school have gone on to higher education – more than 90% to four-year institutions.
The school started in a church basement with 75 students just eight years ago and has grown to 875 K-12th grade students on a $20 million, six-building campus that was a sandy vacant lot before.
“I really changed my life there,” said Corrales, taking a break recently from her college classes at Arizona State University, where she’s studying to become a physician’s assistant.
She never thought of a future in college while at a public school that she said was “worried more about the students going on the wrong path.” But after attending Empower, she said the school led her to believe in a bright future and opened her mind to give back to her community.
She volunteered to give food to the homeless, picked up trash in the neighborhood and worked at the food bank.
The school’s vision is for students to transform the world, and its mission is to prepare them with education and a sense of purpose to succeed in college and do it.
“The teachers at Empower really show a passion that they like to teach,” she said, including her science teacher Katelynn Reeder, a 2014 GCU graduate.
“Not only was she a teacher, she was a mentor. I could talk to her about how I feel. I was nervous to go to college, and now that I’m in college she still checks up on me. I just texted her today to ask for advice.”
Reeder said she has grown up with the school. She has a classroom filled with science lab equipment that in early years she only dreamed of. The sixth graders she taught in her first year are now seniors.
GCU prepared her to ride out unexpected trials with its mission trips.
“If I didn’t have those experiences, it would be shocking. Seeing what some of my kids go through is heartbreaking,” she said. “These families have really hard lives, everything from immigration issues to gangs to health issues.
“But you are part of a family. We have all these conversations and share what they are struggling with, but there is a satisfaction that you develop in a community. You have such love for these people, and you get to see them change.”
Reeder is one of three GCU graduates who teach at the school, joining GCU students doing practicums there. Empower also has utilized space at GCU for events, such as soccer or eighth grade graduations. And it’s a Canyon Education Participant (CEP), a GCU program that offers tuition assistance and professional development through K12 Educational Development.
A vital part of the school’s partnership with GCU has been Empower Executive Director Brian Holman’s regular meetings with President Brian Mueller, who has overseen GCU’s growth into a major university right across the freeway.
“The strategic wisdom he provides is a huge blessing for me, and for us,” said Holman, who serves on the CEP advisory board. “It’s really exciting to really learn from Brian how they have grown so well at GCU and benefit from the advice and talent of the teachers.”
The majority of students are from a two-mile radius of the school, 90% qualify for free and reduced lunches and most are Latino. Holman alternated his graduation address between Spanish and English.
An accelerated curriculum is designed to close the achievement gap with four Advanced Placement courses required before graduation. But the school also wants to help students realize that they are not the center of universe and that recognizing the value of others leads to a life of gratitude.
“First is the belief that God creates every person for a purpose. And with that comes an enormous responsibility for the teachers and everyone working with that student to help them fulfill that purpose,” Holman said. “Belief is the first step. The students believe it is possible and it drives everything we do.”
While giving a tour of his campus recently, Holman often paused to reflect on the community that he calls “our people.” He knows parents look on their children as a beautiful thing, and he wants to give them every opportunity to fulfill their dreams for them, even in the stressful time of COVID.
His school quickly added operational staff for cleaning, plastic barriers around desks and shifted to hybrid models with students attending school on alternate days and some learning online.
Holman popped into the room of 2018 GCU graduate Payton Augustino, who was teaching her fourth graders about scenes in plays. The students sat quietly behind plastic barriers using their laptops. “Make sure you push the submit button, please,” Augustino told them.
In another room, GCU graduate Claire Lee led students through a math problem, jumping up to check answers of those in the classroom while instructing others online to give a thumbs up when done.
It’s hard motivating students online, said Lee, a 2019 graduate, but the school is dedicated to adapting to challenges.
“We did a supplies drive, if parents needed diapers or canned goods,” she said. “I really like that the school helps the families. We don’t just care about their grades.”
Lifting the community around the school is a goal similar to GCU’s, and one they are fulfilling so far.
The rate of students going on to college from low-income neighborhoods is only 50%, Holman said, and his first class was twice as successful, which means a lot to the whole west side.
“When the economy gets hit, like recently, they have limited opportunities,” he said. “But the person who has an education, their lifetime earnings are a million dollars more, and it provides more stable income, too.”
When Holman taught in public school before launching Empower, he saw students who thought they had little opportunity for a future.
“We are changing that,” he said. “We are making sure the kids have a sense of hope.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.