GCU is all in with assisting Westwood Elementary

Assistant Professor Jena Akard visits each classroom to evaluate her resident teachers.

Second of a four-part series 

Story by Theresa Smith
Photos by David Kadlubowski, Bethany Huffman and Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

Jasmine Diaz did not realize until the next day that Grand Canyon University Assistant Professor Jena Akard was fighting through the pain of a pounding headache when she delivered a critical lesson.

“She goes above and beyond,’’ said Diaz, a GCU student. “She wasn’t feeling well, but she was in it for us. It was a great example of how I want to be, to put my problems to the side and do the best I can to help my students grow. It definitely inspires us to be what she calls ‘teacher leaders.’ I think she is a perfect example of that.’’

Akard’s elevated standards, high energy and Christ-like nurturing have set the bar for the College of Education’s (COE) pre-service resident teaching program at Westwood Elementary School. The program is one of five major services provided by GCU to designated Academic Excellence Site (AES) schools, under the direction of Dr. Tacy Ashby, Senior Vice President of K-12 Educational Development.

Dr. Tacy Ashby oversees the Academic Excellence Site programs.

The all-in approach to the partnership with Westwood is palpable.

“When you can get a university, along with the schools, along with the business community to come around, it is exciting,’’ said COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade. “We’re already seeing some of the fruits of those efforts.’’

Those efforts include:

  • The pre-service residency teaching program: COE students take University classes with Akard in Westwood classrooms two-thirds of the time. In collaboration with Westwood host teachers, they teach lessons to Westwood students one-third of the time.
  • Learning Lounge: Before- and after-school academic assistance is managed by K-12 Director Shari Stagner and implemented by teachers Katherine Slaton and Jillian Cooper and GCU students, known as learning advocates, (LEADs).
Shari Stagner and Katherine Slaton direct the Learning Lounge at Westwood.
  • Canyon PD: Westwood teachers have access to GCU’s Professional Development curriculum, which enables them to strengthen their instructional skills, increase student achievement and maintain their teaching licenses. The program is directed by Carol Lippert, GCU’s Executive Director K-12 Outreach and Support, and a former Associate Superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education. Four Westwood teachers are enrolled in the Canyon PD STEM Ready series.
  • Leadership Coaching: Westwood administrators, including Principal Theresa Killingsworth, meet regularly with GCU’s Director of Academic Alliances, Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a former superintendent of Glendale Union School District.
  • Parent View: Lippert and her staff connect with parents of Westwood students, including participating in Westwood’s monthly family events and hosting tours and activities on the GCU campus.

In turn, Westwood allocates two classrooms for pre-service resident teachers and LEADs and encourages its teachers to permit pre-service resident teachers to direct lessons, along with numerous other cooperating activities on the part of Westwood.

“One of the most important things for me was to be able to share with our parents what’s going on with GCU,’’ Killingsworth said. “They are very excited about it, and they all want their students to be able to participate. We also have a very strong push this year for a multitiered system of support. With that comes a strong focus on small groups for core instruction and then interventions outside of core instruction. In order to make that happen, we need hands. So it is wonderful for us to have GCU students here who are trained to be able to come into our classrooms and teach alongside our teachers. Our kids are the benefactors of that.’’

An attainable vision

Whether it is working with a resident teacher at their table, listening to a LEAD explain a math problem in the Learning Lounge, or seeing a resident teacher sit in on a class for field-experience hours, GCU students are inspiring their mentees.

Pre-service resident teacher Hannah Pastor writes student responses on a whiteboard.

“It is an attainable vision,’’ Killingsworth said. “It is right in their backyard, and on a daily basis they are able to talk to students who are at GCU. It is becoming familiar for them.’’

Evidence of the Westwood teachers' enthusiasm for GCU pre-service resident teachers is the increased number, from six  to 15 teachers, who asked Akard to send them pre-service resident teachers throughout the fall semester. For the spring, a similar number of Westwood teachers are on board.

The enthusiasm is mutual, as Akard observed: “GCU students have asked to serve in particular classrooms for the spring semester and complete their student teaching at Westwood. They are making these requests because they want to continue to develop positive relationships with the Westwood teachers and students.”

Indeed, all five of Westwood’s student-teachers for the spring semester are from GCU.

Learning Lounge success

Another example of GCU’s impact are the gains made by the third- and fourth-graders attending the Learning Lounge for after-school math tutoring. They averaged 75 percent typical growth last semester compared to the 58.5 percent typical growth average of all Westwood third- and fourth-graders -- and more data is coming.

"We're adding additional tutoring in the morning, for kindergarten through grade 2,’’ said Johnson, noting that parents of first-semester Learning Lounge students are so pleased with the progress of their children that they desire assistance for their younger children. To accommodate a second group of students, Cooper, a Westwood second-grade teacher, made arrangements to come in before school twice weekly to work with LEADs who are able to assist before their own GCU morning classes.

Westwood is the first Academic Excellence Site (AES) established by GCU.

Other data points to be considered are attendance figures for Learning Lounge participants and all Westwood students.

“We know how important good attendance is in the learning process, so we are hoping that all of this motivates kids to come to school more often and motivates parents to makes sure their kids come to school more often,’’ Johnson said.

Near the end of the school year, Westwood students will take the district benchmark test and the AzMERIT state test, and their scores will be compared to their 2018 results in terms of performance and growth.

Johnson also will seek input and perceptions from Westwood teachers, Killingsworth and her two assistant principals as well as perception data via surveys of Westwood parents.

“There were teachers who had pre-service resident teachers, there were teachers who had students working with a LEAD and they didn’t have a pre-service resident teacher, and this third group of teachers who didn’t have either one,’’ Johnson said. “We are gathering input from all of them to see what they thought about the first semester.’’

Theresa Killingsworth, Principal of Westwood, and Dr. Jennifer Johnson review AES plans.

Leadership Coaching

Given Killingsworth’s experience – it is her 19th year in the district and second at Westwood -- the leadership coaching conversations with Johnson bypassed typical topics and focused on ways to help the community become aware of the accomplishments at Westwood.

“We have built a plan for gathering the good news about Westwood and sharing it with elected officials, public safety, the Boys and Girls Club and the neighborhood Block Watch groups,’’ Johnson said. “When you drive through the Westwood neighborhood, it is pretty challenged, so I think people have the tendency to think, ‘Oh, this is a really poor neighborhood, that school must not be very good’ when, in fact, it is doing well and getting better every day. People should know all the cool things the staff and GCU are doing to help compensate for experiences these kids don’t get that lots of other middle-class kids get. It is important just to help them understand and appreciate how hard this partnership is working on behalf of the kids in the neighborhood.’’

Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, Dean of the COE, signs copies of her chilldren's book, Thunder's Vision book

Parent View

With more than 300 attending Family Math Night and more than 1,500 at Carnival Night in the fall, the connection between Westwood parents and their school is growing with an assist from GCU.

Lippert and her staff in January assisted with Starry Nights, a parent literacy workshop. Families received copies of Thunder’s Vision, the children’s book written by LaPrade, along with a parent’s reading guide created by Lippert.

All Parent View events are geared toward supporting student success, including the concept of attaining higher education.

“One of the components we want to have in every Parent View series is a culminating visit here to the GCU campus, where we can take the parents on a tour,’’ Lippert said. “They can see the Learning Lounge and the Academic Centers to understand what kind of supports are available for their student learner here, as well as opening up opportunities for them to learn about potential programs if they themselves wanted to enroll in a certificate program or degree-seeking program.’’

Carol Lippert oversees Parent Vision and Canyon PD

GCU-bound students are increasingly evident in the neighborhood. One recent morning as Killingsworth welcomed students to school, a third-grader spied a young lady wearing GCU gear and getting into a car across the street.

Killingsworth said, “She turned to me and said, ‘When I get older, I am hoping to go to GCU.’  That is a big thing. She saw the T-shirt and now she has that vision.’’

Next: what GCU’s aspiring teachers are gaining from their involvement in the pre-service resident teaching program.

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: "Brewers-GCU Partnership is home run for learning"

GCU Today: "GCU students accelerating teaching process"

KTAR News: "GCU partners with elementary school to prepare future teachers"


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