GCU students fill new roles at neighbor school
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
As Empower College Prep continues to grow, so does its alliance with Grand Canyon University just across the freeway, strengthened by a larger group of talented GCU teacher candidates.
The K-12 charter school has long sought GCU graduates to teach fulltime or students who work on practicums and student teach, as a dozen are currently doing.
Now there are even more Lopes in the hallways.
Fourteen students are employed as teaching associates in a new program to help the school manage its phenomenal growth and assist in classrooms, while giving GCU students paid jobs that give them classroom experience before their senior year student teaching assignments.
“They are growing, and we just keep sending in more people every year – associates, practicums, student teaching – every time I’m there, I feel like I’m running into more of them,” said Dr. Jim Mostofo, a College of Education professor who works closely with Empower to place candidates.
GCU students are a boon at an important time for Empower, faced with 16-fold growth in just short of a decade of existence to nearly 1,000 students, while faced with a pandemic and teacher shortages.
“We also have twice the state average of English learners, which even more than poverty or special needs, is the most challenged group,” said Brian Holman, Empower’s founder and Executive Director. “We are serving the highest need of students, and they need more intervention.”
Teaching associates take an active role in assisting a classroom teacher, rather than a typical practicum’s observational role, and can close learning gaps with one-on-one instruction or in small groups.
GCU senior Emily Cole is a prime example of how an associate can help after she started in January.
She thought that Empower students in the 11th-grade English class knew the answers but weren’t clear on the questions.
“They were not sure what is being asked of them,” she said. “So I spent time with them one on one.”
They started to get it.
After her first attempts at leading students, she was convinced that she picked the right profession.
“On an academic level, this is real life. This prepares me to be a real teacher. Textbooks are fine, but they’re nothing like students,” said Cole, who majors in English for secondary education. “On an emotional level, it affirms that this is my calling. I love these students with my whole heart.
“Recently, we did poems about life, and there are a lot of inner-city kids and they have a lot of baggage. I tell them, ‘Hey, it’s OK to come from this,’ empowering them to just see themselves as I see them, not as victims of their circumstances.”
She’s also grateful for the chance at a paying job.
“Honestly, I was so floored that my professor (Mostofo) recommended me that I burst into tears,” she said.
Mostofo helps place secondary teacher candidates – Assistant Professor Katy Long handles candidates for elementary – and visits the classrooms to monitor their teaching skills.
Mostofo says they get classroom experience and a leg up on future job openings at the school.
“They are not afraid to throw them in there. They are getting opportunity,” he said. “Now people know them, they have references, they are comfortable there and it’s close,” he said.
Empower is equally happy with the program.
“We find that GCU students are an extraordinarily unique mission and value fit,” said Holman. “We’ve been ecstatic to work with them.”
The charter school launched with the idea to help economically challenged students and their families in the neighborhood. But keeping teachers past a couple of years has been difficult in every school, he said.
“That’s because the learning curve and demands are stiff. We think that is a problem that is somewhat solvable,” he said. “We can start with educators earlier and make the learning curve more smooth.”
Junior Rebecca Lange was eager to sign on as an associate in the seventh grade math classroom a couple days a week.
“It’s not your typical school. If someone asks you a faith-based question, we don’t shy away from it. I like that aspect of it,” she said. “Also, it’s nice that it’s still smaller compared to most public schools. I get to know the students by name, I get to know their stories.”
The job that is only a five-minute drive from campus has allowed Lange to get to know the area around campus more deeply and appreciate its mission to lift the neighborhood, while seeing many familiar faces of GCU students in the hallway.
It also helped further her teaching goals.
“This job has opened more doors for me to get a paid student teaching job,” she said. “I’m set to go to Ecuador to teach at a private, mission-based school.”
The associate program may expand at Empower, Holman said. New grants and state taxpayer diversion options to the school could help. There’s no doubt it’s mutually beneficial.
“They seem to have a similar mission,” Mostofo said. “They focus on character, and we do a lot of character education. They like to help the local community. And our students know students are mostly from this neighborhood, and they feel good about that.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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