GCU's Learning Lounge boosts Westwood

Last of a four-part series

Story by Theresa Smith
Photos by David Kadlubowski and Lizbeth Garcia
GCU News Bureau

Lizbeth Garcia was walking through the hall at Westwood Elementary School one October afternoon when a third-grader approached her and asked if it was a Learning Lounge day. When Garcia assured her that Grand Canyon University's Learning Lounge academic-assistance program would indeed be in session after school, the student beamed with joy.

“I know the kids are excited to come here,’’ said Garcia, a GCU student who serves as a learning advocate, known as a LEAD. “It is not boring after-school tutoring; it is something they want to be here for.’’

LEAD Lizbeth Garcia works with a math student in the Learning Lounge.

The excitement is evident as the students relish snacks provided by St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and wait outside the door to the classroom on the northwest side of the Westwood campus on 23rd Avenue. As he opens the door, LEAD Manuel Espinoza always asks, “Who is ready to learn?’’

The third- and fourth-graders, selected last August because their math scores were two to three grades below grade level, answer, “We are,’’ in excited voices. They settle in at tables with LEADs and Westwood kindergarten teacher Katherine Slaton, a 2015 GCU graduate who teaches all day at the Title 1 school and stays after twice per week to oversee the Learning Lounge.

Slaton owns a unique perspective as the only person in the program educating at Westwood and in the Learning Lounge.

“We want the LEADs to have the context of the school site,’’ said Shari Stagner, GCU’s Director of K-12 Outreach.

The LEADs are a mixture of student workers and recipients of Students Inspiring Students (SIS) scholarships. In their high school years, the SIS recipients attended the Learning Lounge on the GCU campus themselves. Now they are repaying the scholarships by becoming LEADs.

Garcia, an SIS recipient and elementary education major, is thrilled to help Westwood students solve previously frustrating math problems.

“The students enjoy learning, and we’ve never had an issue with any one of them,’’ she said.

Shari Stagner, GCU's Director of K-12 Outreach, works with Learning Lounge students.

Stagner and Dr. Joe Veres, Vice President for Student Success, have emphasized targeted lesson planning since the first Learning Lounge opened in 2013. In collaboration with the K-12 Educational Development, the Learning Lounge has four off-campus sites: Westwood, Royal Palm Middle School, Palo Verde Middle School and Washington High School.

“It has evolved and we’ve streamlined the process to get more intentional about what we are doing,’’ Stagner said. “It is more customized than ever before. For example, at Washington High School, the LEADs go into classrooms to support with Geometry, Algebra I and Algebra II.’’

Expanding at Westwood

There were a combined 24 LEADs at the four schools in the fall semester and there are 28 this semester, including an added segment at Westwood – beginning Feb. 11, nine LEADs will tutor kindergarten through second-graders in reading before school under the watchful eye of Westwood teacher Jillian Cooper.

Parents of the third- and fourth-grade Learning Lounge students requested tutoring for their younger children after seeing their children gain confidence and new math skills during the fall semester. They also were motivated by the following results:

  • 20 out of 30 students scored at least one grade level higher compared to the baseline assessment
  • 14 out of 30 students made 83 percent typical growth or higher
  • 10 of those students made 107 percent *typical growth or higher with three students scoring at 157 percent growth
  • 5 students are at 84 percent or better progress toward **stretch growth
  • 47 percent decrease in the number of the students who are two grade levels behind or greater 

* -- Typical Growth is the average growth of students at each grade and placement level.

** -- Stretch Growth is the growth recommended to put below-grade students on a path to proficiency (reaching their grade level) and on-grade students on a path to advanced proficiency levels.

LEAD Manuel Espinoza shows a student how to solve a math problem.

Both Typical Growth and Stretch Growth are growth measures that are differentiated based on each student’s grade and initial placement on the i-Ready Diagnostic Assessment.

Test scores significantly improve

“We compared the data of the Learning Lounge group to all Westwood third- and fourth-graders,’’ Westwood Principal Theresa Killingsworth said. “All the third- and fourth-graders are at 58.5 percent typical growth and the Learning Lounge students are at 75 percent, so it was a significant difference.”

LEAD Gracie Grettenberger predicted as much.

“The students are eager to learn,’’ she said. “They try and try until they get the right answer, and then their faces light up.’’

The LEADs experienced the same reaction when Stagner and Slaton shared the first-semester test results with them.

“It is so joyful and an incredible feeling to know how much of an impact we’re making,’’ Garcia said. “And I have to say that they are not just learning math; they are learning to work with their peers. They are learning social skills. It is nice to see them grow in all aspects.’’

Brianda Lopez provides guided instruction to a pair of Westwood students.

In January, Killingsworth directed a comparison to a control group from another school.

“We compared their growth to the growth of the kids in the Learning Lounge, so it is a true growth comparison,’’ she said. “The goal was to get two groups as exact as possible, and the only difference is that one is in the Learning Lounge and one is not.’’

Drawing data from 29 control group students with similar demographics to the 30 Westwood students in the Learning Lounge for the fall 2018 semester, substantial gains were made by the Learning Lounge students, as the chart demonstrates:

Westwood: 30 3rd/4th graders in Learning Lounge/ Control Group: 29 3rd/4th graders in a similar school

75 percent progressing toward Typical Growth 30 percent progressing toward Typical Growth
50 percent are one grade level below their grade level Zero percent are on grade level or one level below their grade level
50 percent are two grade levels below their grade level 90 percent of 3rd-graders are two or more grade levels below their grade level; 100 percent of 4th-graders are two or more grade levels below their grade level

“The data is showing that what they are doing is working,’’ Killingsworth said.

In multiplication, for example, a back-to-the-drawing board approach was critical.

 “When we started with these students in August, we found they were below a foundational level,’’ Stagner said. “So we monitored and adjusted and we went back to teaching second-grade arrays.’’

Shari Stagner and Katherine Slaton direct the highly effective Learning Lounge at Westwood.

LEADing the way

At the same time, Slaton saw increased growth with the LEADs.

“Before, they were learning how to teach,’’ she said. “For some of them, this is their first experience with the Learning Lounge, so I have seen them open up to the students more frequently and consider a variety of approaches. They are asking themselves, ‘Is there a better way?’’’

Twice per month, Slaton meets with the LEADs. The first meeting is centered on lesson planning; the second follows an assessment.

“It is focused on observations about the students and looking at the data and deciding where to go next,’’ Slaton said.

For continuity and the building of relationships, each student is assigned to the same LEAD for each session.

From left, LEADs Scholastique Mulumba, Brianda Lopez, Lizbeth Garcia, Manuel Espinoza, Johanna Gonzalez and May Carreon pose with Katherine Slaton, a Westwood teacher and Learning Lounge leader.

Espinoza, an engineering major, stands out among the upbeat, excited group of LEADs.

“Manny has a leader personality,’’ Slaton said. “He takes charge.’’

One of his specialties is turning sentences into multiplication problems.

“He is owning what he’s teaching,’’ Stagner said. “It makes me really proud of him.’’

Along with words of encouragement from their LEADs, Westwood students are motivated by reaching their goals, post-lesson math games and GCU swag: T-shirts, bags, sunglasses, beach balls, water bottles and stress balls.

Ever helpful and incredibly organized, Slaton has connected the dots between the swag and the LEADs.

Johana Gonzalez works with a Learning Lounge student on math concepts.

“We talked about how the LEADs are college students who attend GCU,’’ she said. “This community knows about GCU, they know it is close by, they do Lopes Up.’’

As Killingsworth observed, “They feel special. They say to themselves, ‘I am a Learning Lounge student.’ They wear the T-shirt with pride, almost like game day for an athlete. They feel a sense of responsibility as a role model for other students. We are now observing that what they are learning in the Learning Lounge is transferring into their core instruction."

The 19th-year educational veteran cited numerous contributing factors for student improvement, including the impact of GCU’s pre-service resident teachers and the LEADs in the Learning Lounge.

“With all the great things happening at Westwood, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the direct cause is,’’ she said, smiling. “But it is safe to say GCU is a big part of why things are going the way they’re going. We are blessed.”

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


Related Content: 

Part 1 of the series: Academic excellence program embraces schools

Part 2 of the series: GCU is all in with assisting Westwood Elementary

Part 3 of the series: GCU and Westwood Teacher training accelerated


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