GCU-Empower union has students coming, going

Empower College Prep graduates (from left) Valentin Sauceda, Andrea Arteaga, Elizama Perez and Jose Mejia all will attend GCU in the fall.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

The partnership is becoming a trade for stars.

Empower College Prep hires some of the best graduates from neighboring Grand Canyon University. And GCU enrolls some of Empower’s best students.

“I think they have star potential,” GCU professor Dr. Jim Mostofo said of the four Lopes who were hired for the 2022-23 school year at Empower, which brings the total of GCU College of Education products to 12 in the nearby K-12 charter school.

Empower has made it a two-way pipeline, sending its valedictorian, salutatorian, student body president and senior class representative to GCU next year.

“I love the passion I see at GCU,” said Valentin Sauceda, Empower’s student body president. “I love how the students interact. I want to be part of that environment.”

Empower College Prep senior Elizama Perez is the valedictorian and is going to be a Lope.

Empower hires GCU graduates as full-time teachers, student teachers, teachers' associates or as part of the 15 GCU students last year doing practicums. Empower students notice.

“We went to a GCU basketball game and we were intrigued,” said Elizama Perez, the valedictorian and senior class president. “Lopes Up! I didn’t know what was going on, but we tried to bring the cheers back here.”

The partnership, one of many GCU has with Valley schools, highlights a growing wave of the future – embedded, paid learning opportunities for education students, said COE Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield.

Called Canyon Teacher Residencies, students can get paid as substitutes, interns and teachers' associates, obtaining valuable teaching lessons and managing classrooms while easing teacher shortages.

Fifteen GCU students were teacher associates at Empower during the last academic year, and four of them – Emily Cole, Dylan Fruh, Ramey Metzger or Lily Newhart – have been hired for full-time positions at Empower next year.

GCU student and Empower College Prep teacher Lily Newhart works with a pair of Empower first graders on breaking down syllables.

Newhart was hired even before she graduates with her degree in history for secondary education. She will be paid for her internship at Empower next year, then assume a permanent role.

She made the decision to work at Empower for its environment, its teachers “and the kids are so sweet and loving.”

Another teacher was listening in to the conversation in Empower’s intervention room, where students go to get extra help, and said that, coincidentally, she’s also from GCU. The April graduate was hired to teach first grade next year.

“For me it was the community and the values here,” said Grace Gladney. “We are here to step in and love these kids and do our best to provide a good education.”

GCU graduate Grace Gladney recently landed a job as an Empower teacher.

They often hear the kids say they’d love to go to GCU. There’s even a "GCU room" at the school.

Enrolling students in college is a major goal for Empower founder and executive director Brian Holman. The school sits in an area of the city with economic challenges, and he says 90% of his students take free and reduced lunch, a marker of poverty.

After starting more than a decade ago with 75 students, the school numbers nearly 1,000, and 90% of this year’s graduating class of 52 is college-bound.

Of those who will attend GCU, proximity is only part of the reason. They know all those GCU-educated teachers.

“The biggest factor for them is familiarity; our kids are very relational,” Holman said.

In turn, the teachers he gets from GCU are a “natural values fit. We find the GCU students tend to be more connected to our core value than anyone else. And they are talented and smart, and they get really good training. It helps us being able to start with teachers early. As we grow, we need that pipeline for future staff.”

Newhart and Gladney both said they like the idea they are changing the expectations for the future of the students at Empower.

“We have a huge refugee population, and many live in extreme poverty. Some of our kids come in with few clothes, and kindergartners have hammer toes because their shoes are too small,” Gladney said.

They expect a brighter future for them with an education.

“Their home lives might be messy, but you love them through that,” Newhart said. “You try to build connections with these kids, and that really is important to make changes.”

Jose Mejia, the class salutatorian and treasurer, didn’t know a month ago if he’d go to college because of the expense. But he landed a scholarship and will attend GCU.

“I feel like Empower and GCU have made an impact as they have spread out and brought value back to the community,” he said. “The streets are better. Last week, we adopted a street (to clean up). We pitched the idea to leave our legacy on 23rd avenue between Camelback and Bethany Home.”

The four leaders said they really want to change the world. Whether in nursing, cybersecurity or marketing, their goal is to help people. Their parents are all immigrants who are painters or welders, work in auto body, construction or drive for Uber.

“A lot of us are first generation, and that’s what pushes us to want to go to college,” Perez said.

Empower College Prep senior Andrea Arteaga is one of seven Empower grads who will attend GCU.

They said Empower helped prepare them for GCU with the charter school’s core values, among them respect, integrity, perseverance and optimism.

“Instead of snarky comments, Brian Holman would lift me up and make me feel optimism about the school,” said Andrea Arteaga, a senior class representative. “He gave me hope and helped inspire my dreams.”

When they first see many GCU-educated teachers, they said some look so young they didn’t know they were teachers at first.

Yet they are among the best.

“I went over to watch them teach, and they come across as veterans,” said Mostofo, who serves as a vital liaison to Empower. “The teachers there give them excellent feedback. I’ve had veterans say to me, ‘They put me on my game.’”

Newhart wears Chuck Taylors, has a streak of purple hair and teaches like a seasoned pro, taking a couple of students through a reading exercise. Around her neck is her school badge, which contains the paper art her students make.

“Kids are sweet. It boils down to caring for them,” she said. “I just feel super blessed, honestly. I would have never seen this when I applied for colleges. God’s plan for me was better than I could ever have thought. My plan was for myself.”

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


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU students fill new roles at neighbor school

GCU Today: GCU graduates become neighborhood teachers

GCU Today: Neighborhood school empowered by GCU


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