Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Mathew McGraw
GCU News Bureau
Westwood Elementary School faced a dilemma in the fall. Three teachers were leaving the school, and students could face a winter 2020 semester with substitutes.
Until Grand Canyon University education graduates came to the rescue.
“Okay, I need three teachers and – boom – I had them,” Westwood Principal Theresa Killingsworth said. “GCU is growing teachers and we are providing jobs for them once they graduate.”
Within weeks, three recent GCU graduates filled the ranks, bringing the total of certified staff at Westwood who are GCU alums to 13 out of 50 – including Killingsworth, who earned her master’s degree at the University.
Filling vacancies during teacher shortages is another example of a fruitful partnership with the nearby neighborhood school at 23rd Avenue in West Phoenix. Early childhood majors from GCU’s College of Education are embedded in Westwood’s classrooms during their teacher training throughout the academic year and Learning Lounge Leads serve as mentors in the after-school program, where GCU research shows that Westwood students score higher than the average growth in math and language after using it.
The links continue Saturday at Serve the City, when students, parents and staff from GCU and Westwood combine with Habitat for Humanity to revitalize the elementary campus with fresh paint and the first phase of a community garden project.
A peek inside the classrooms of the three new teachers – Cortney Ferrier, Riley Winslow and Alisha Serviss -- shows why this partnership is so meaningful.
“Good Morning Family.”
It starts with a positive message on the wall of Ferrier’s third grade classroom wall. And that’s what it feels like to the 2019 GCU graduate, who did teacher training at the school before landing her first job, which began in January.
“I love Westwood because being on campus was a different experience than you normally have,” she said. “You have a connection walking through these halls. The kids say, ‘look it’s GCU!’ So being able to come back felt like the right thing.”
Riley Winslow, who also trained at the school, started as a second-grade teacher on the same week.
“I found out Cortney was here, and I was like, ‘thank you God.’ I have somebody who is in the same position,” she said.
Teaching at Westwood can be filled with challenges. Killingsworth said 98% of students take free or reduced lunch, a typical marker of a school population’s poverty level, and the district has the highest rate of removals from state child protection agencies.
“So, you come in and already are overwhelmed,” Winslow said. “It’s your first year, but on top of that being a Title 1 (high poverty rate) school, being with kids who probably need more than teaching, is a challenge.”
The teachers said they hear what some students are dealing with and it’s hard not to carry those emotions home.
“To think of these tiny people having these big problems is a lot to carry for us,” Winslow said. “But walking into this job, as scary as it was, I knew I had that family support. Anytime I did feel stressed or out of sorts, I had people to go to.”
This is when the teachers said they call on their time at GCU, and the COE Promise of support to graduates in their first year of teaching.
Serviss, who joined the staff just days after Winslow and Ferrier, said she tries to give her fourth grade students what she had a GCU.
“Behind the scenes they are just really rooting for you, not only academically but making sure mentally you are OK,” Serviss said. “I had a couple times when a professor would say, ‘You seem a little off today, are you OK?’
“It showed they cared about students, no matter their age, which is something I can do with my students here, too.”
When she did her job interview at Westwood, Serviss knew right away she was dealing with a person with GCU ties in Killingsworth.
“She started out the interview by saying that all the questions I’m going to ask deal with your heart, what your heart has inside, and what makes you want to go into education.”
Serviss told the principal that she didn’t dismiss students’ ideas just because they are so young or put a damper on their enthusiasm.
“I want to give them encouragement that they are seen and heard and do have valuable things to bring,” Serviss said. “And to make sure other people are not tearing them down from a young age.”
GCU’s training with an embedded classroom at the school, where GCU students go over plans and execute them throughout the year, was vital.
“They plan a lesson and teach to real kids,” said COE Assistant Professor Jena Akard, who helped launch the embedded model teaching program at Westwood. “But we’re also building a relationship with the students and the community.”
That has paid off with full-time jobs.
“It makes my teacher heart happy to see them in the classroom,” Akard said. “It’s such a gift to see them using their skills you helped develop.”
The examples are clear to see only weeks into their new teaching roles. Ferrier said without that real-life training she wouldn’t have been able to feel confidence in the new job.
In the first couple of weeks, she had a boy in class who came from another country and had no English skills.
She gave him a job offering other students hand sanitizer before lunch, so he would speak with them. She taught him to say, “Here you go,” “Hello friend” and “How are you?”
“The smile on his face as they interact with him as he’s getting these foundations in English – and how he is just so happy – just melts my heart,” Ferrier said.
It all circles back to GCU’s mission of service, she said.
Winslow drew on the same spirit when a little boy came to class every day but would never utter a word. “He sat there and looked like he was going to break down and cry every single day,” she said.
So, every day when he walked in the room, Winslow called out to him.
“Good morning! How are you? I’m glad you’re here!”
Slowly, she is already noticing changes. He came up to her desk to whisper questions recently.
“And this week I saw him smile. It’s those little moments. ... You have these little glimpses of these kids.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.