Alumni teachers fill 2 neighborhood schools

GCU graduate Ashley Hadley loves teaching fourth grade at Westwood Elementary School.

Lope spirit abounds at Westwood, Sunnyslope with 22 GCU grads

Photos by Ralph Freso

While noted for helping combat a nationwide teacher shortage, Grand Canyon University also plays a large role in its own neighborhood.

Twenty-two GCU College of Education graduates are teachers at two elementary schools – 14 at Westwood, a mile east of campus, and eight at Sunnyslope, seven miles north.

While GCU alumni are in demand across the Valley, COE students often say they are called to serve where needed most, including communities surrounding campus whose schools have large refugee or immigrant populations and where most students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Ashley Hadley, a fourth-grade teacher at Westwood, didn’t care about all that. She found an ethnic connection to her students, having grown up in a Hispanic household.

“I can find a way to connect with all demographics. But it feels like you are more welcome when you have people of similar heritage in your background,” said Hadley, a 2017 graduate.

Hadley says her fellow Lopes are known for their optimism.

Since starting at Westwood four years ago, she has seen a steady increase of Lopes in the hallways and can spot them by their common characteristics – caring and understanding, she said. “I feel like they are ready for anything and very optimistic about teaching.”

The Westwood partnership has been nurtured for years, and during the pandemic it continued with students helping teach online. Today, numerous students perform practicums at Westwood or are in student teaching roles. An early childhood class from GCU goes to Westwood one day a week to teach a lesson.

“My students feel that connection with the community and feel like they are learning about themselves as teachers and how to be part of a community,” said assistant professor Jena Akard, who leads the class. “I think it is the GCU way, the Christian way, be the hands and feet.

“We promote and allow our students to go into the neighborhoods, and they see their impact and they don’t want to leave that. The neatest part is it’s right in GCU’s backyard.”

Westwood Elementary School Principal Adrienne Stephenson

Westwood Principal Adrienne Stephenson is grateful. Her school is not short-staffed this year, a rarity in a state where more than 1 in 5 teaching vacancies were unfilled at the start of the school year.

“We never have a problem because of GCU. They want to serve our community,” she said, adding that they also hope to add a GCU student staff of paid substitutes soon.

It takes a person willing to give their whole heart to serve at Westwood, Stephenson said, and GCU students have a Christian heart.

That Christ-centered and values-based education in COE encourages them to “go out into the world and make a difference,” said COE Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield.

“Our graduates don’t just see teaching as a career, but a calling. It’s no surprise to me that we have so many alumni who have organically cohorted to teach in schools in underserved communities just blocks from the GCU campus.”

To the north, Sunnyslope is building a Lopes pipeline.

Second-grade teacher Amanda Wild, a 2019 graduate, did her practicum at Sunnyslope, so she was in line when a fulltime position opened – and then she enlisted her friend and fellow grad Hannah Schneider to join. Schneider, in turn, encouraged her friend, Franklyn Stamps, to take the kindergarten position.

Wild is now hosting GCU practicum students in her classes.

“I know they are good quality. Usually they are hands on and willing to jump in,” she said.

They fit in well with the school’s philosophy that all students are capable of success, no exceptions.

“We look at kids through the lens that no matter the background or home life, we believe you have a future,” Wild said. “That fits in well with GCU’s mission statement and its Christian worldview. So taking that worldview and being able to come to the school and live that out is pretty great.”

The children need more than academic support.

GCU graduate Sara Plaum leads a session at Sunnyslope. (File photo)

“They need a place where they feel safe and see a smiling face every day," Wild said. "The joy is knowing these kids come from tough backgrounds, but I can be a source of hope and light for them.”

A GCU class is observing via Zoom a third-grade class led by Sara Plaum, a 2017 graduate and master’s degree student at GCU.

“Before they get in the classroom, they get a chance to see it in real time,” Plaum said. “This is classroom management, and you can see it used.”

She said GCU alums often talk about a class or professor they remember at GCU and realize they are employing those lessons in their own classes.

Some of those lessons are about caring.

“I feel like I am helping these kids and they are teaching me as well,” she said. “I feel like they need somebody who has the passion and who want them to not only grow in academics but as a person.”

GCU ALUMS

At Sunnyslope Elementary -- Franklyn Stamps, Hannah Schneider, Amanda Wild, Rachel Oneil, Cassandra Guerrero, Quinn Turner, Sara Plaum, Ali Nelson.

At Westwood Elementary -- Emilee Wilson, Bre Helling, Angelica Garcia, Kara Huff, Nathan Johnson, Dustin Mans, Kathryn Hill, Emily Brezeal, Terri Becchina, Cristal Chagollan, Sophia Pope, Alexis Hill, Lizbeth Lucero and Ashley Hadley.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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