By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
The Edison-Eastlake Community is the largest concentration of public housing in Arizona, and the pandemic has hurt its students.
“A lot of the kids are struggling right now because of the coronavirus and doing distance learning,” said Zona Pacheco, Housing Supportive Services Coordinator for City of Phoenix Housing Department.
Grand Canyon University is stepping in to help by forming a new partnership with the housing authority to supply volunteer tutors and mentors to elementary and middle school children in the community one mile east of downtown Phoenix.
The idea was hatched even before the pandemic by Kevin Walling, Chair of Justice Studies, Government and History in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Once an attorney for a public housing authority in Washington state, Walling helped launch an after-school tutoring site, assisted by area colleges.
“Why not duplicate this at GCU?” he asked. “GCU students have a strong commitment to service leadership, so our students would make excellent tutors to children in need.”
GCU has a track record of tutoring the underserved population with its Learning Lounge, aimed at neighborhoods around the University. But this would be a new effort in a public housing district near downtown.
Walling reached out to College of Education Associate Dean Dr. Marjaneh Gilpatrick, who got the ball rolling. Many COE students are studying to become teachers.
“Our students will help them make sense of homework, or practice reading and get them to want to read,” she said.
They have sent out a call for volunteers, describing the many financial and educational hurdles some of the public housing families face: “These problems have only been magnified this year because of the pandemic, leaving many children from disadvantaged households feeling isolated, ignored and ill-prepared for their academics and life.”
Several students have already responded by contacting Pacheco at [email protected]. But more are needed to serve in the neighborhood’s four community centers, which are part of the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, a Housing and Urban Development grant to transform distressed neighborhoods and public housing into mixed-income neighborhoods.
Teachers have identified the children who need extra help, though the housing department’s after-school efforts with AmeriCorps and other city employees has been limited by the pandemic.
“A lot of the families are low- or very low-income families with diverse backgrounds. A lot of them are great kids, but they are going to need tutors that can work with kids with some challenges,” Gilpatrick said. “Not only will they find the challenges may be learning, but the kid may say, ‘I’m really hungry today. I don’t have any food in my house.’”
GCU was eager for the challenge.
“It’s a whole group of people coming together to help and make sure everyone has equitable access, and they are able to continue their learning,” Gilpatrick said.
“I’m really proud of our students. They are all about giving back and supporting the community. In the College of Education, we are also allowing them to count it toward field experiences if it aligns with their studies.”
Not only COE students can apply.
“Whatever degree program they are following, as long as they have a heart for kids in a positive and meaningful manner, this is an opportunity for them,” Walling said.
They hope to get enough students who have passed city clearances to begin tutoring later in February.
“I think the main thing to work with our students is to keep it fun for them and keep them interested,” Pacheco said. “And to really look and know if they have a test on Friday that they can work with them to study for that test.”
Walling said he hopes the program will endure long after the pandemic, when face-to-face tutoring will be more the norm, and expand the program to other areas, such as rural locations.
“There is a wellspring of need,” he said. “We can be part of the solution for these kids, and in the long term hope they pursue a college education at places like GCU.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.