By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Andrew Hitchcock sent an email to his former professor on Father’s Day.
“The lessons you taught me allowed me to open up and embrace my community and give them everything,” he wrote to Assistant Professor Dr. Paul Danuser at Grand Canyon University.
Just weeks before, Hitchcock had received similar praise from his own students. Several wrote letters to the first-year teacher and coach, included in a package with a school brick to be laid on the Holy Trinity Catholic School campus in El Cajon, California, engraved with this:
“Coach Hitch. The one who made this all possible.”
The GCU graduate's efforts to connect to a community and its school that is fighting hard to improve was inspired by Danuser’s advice.
“It is great to give so much attention to students and the curriculum," Danuser said, "but having the chance to impact the community where the school is can also make a difference that blesses generations of people.”
So one of the first things Hitchcock did in his first year was volunteer to coach junior high basketball at the small K-8 school. He knew it would help connect him to students and parents.
On his first day in class, he also remembered his grandfather, a longtime teacher and coach in the San Francisco Bay Area who died of cancer just a few weeks before. Bob Hitchcock, who went by “Hitch,” was overjoyed that his grandson would teach and counseled him to always have fun with it and to cherish it.
“This is my first year of teaching,” Andrew Hitchcock told his students that day. “I’m going to learn a lot from you guys, and hopefully you’re going to learn a lot from me.”
Without knowing of his grandfather, students asked, “Can we call you Mr. Hitch?”
It hit him emotionally. He wished he could talk about it with his grandfather, but he knows he is still there watching from above, and every day thereafter the kids called him Mr. Hitch.
Mr. Hitch saw that the outdoor basketball courts were crumbling and cracked, and some students turned ankles or fell. It was on a long list that Principal Julia Marentez created for needed improvements to the 70-year-old facilities, but she was delighted her first-year teacher would take on the project.
Mr. Hitch organized a fundraiser with a DJ and other events and sold donor bricks. Soon, more than $16,000 was raised to tear off the surface and lay new asphalt, hopefully by the start of the school year. Even as his basketball team went on to have one of its best seasons and every boy wanted to play on the team, he didn’t stop there.
The junior high math teacher and holder of a bachelor’s in mathematics for secondary education said he’s competitive, and the academic rating of the school within the Diocese of San Diego was not the best.
“That’s when I heard Danuser’s voice come into my head,” Mr. Hitch said. “'You can teach these guys, just trust yourself because this is why you became a teacher.' His simple line was, ‘Kids will be kids.’ Sometimes they will do silly things, somethings they will do stupid things – you’ve just got to know they are going to do it and know how to attack that situation.”
He got creative, coming up with math competitions and rankings for the high performers. Marentez said the enthusiasm from a young, male teacher was just what the staff needed. Scores improved, and the school had the highest number of scholarships (four) offered from one high school in the diocese after they did well on high school entrance exams.
“If kids are going to be kids,” Mr. Hitch said, “there is no reason they can’t learn.”
He attended recitals and events for his students outside school hours, and parents noticed. They loved how he was helping create community, Marentez said.
And when Hitchcock came to her with another idea, she knew it wouldn’t be half-baked.
“He doesn’t just come to me with an idea,” she said. “He makes a chart.”
The idea was to start a STEM elective to fill the quiet period after lunch when students could read.
“It just took off from the get-go,” Mr. Hitch said. “We made mouse-trap cars, a catapult that the winner shot 250 feet and a roller-coaster with popsicle sticks and marbles. The kids were so excited.”
Parents were invited to come in and see their children’s projects, and Marentez said they thirsted for it after the remote COVID years. The STEM elective was so popular, every one of the 54 students in the junior high took it the next semester.
“He has a great rapport with parents and brings out the best in the learners. He’s not just a teacher, he’s making a difference in the community,” she said. “He values that sense of community, and during the year you could walk in and feel that.”
Even during the summer, as Mr. Hitch begins online studies at GCU for his master’s in educational leadership, he is holding summer basketball camps every morning at the school.
“I love this school,” he said. “It’s been beyond a blessing.”
Although Mr. Hitch wishes his grandfather could see the fun he created in learning, he had his professor's advice on his mind, too.
If you connect with the students, they will work hard for you.
“He is just beginning to scratch the surface of what he can do and will do,” Danuser said.
There was one thing he didn’t learn at GCU.
“How to say goodbye to the students you connected with. I really connected with that eighth grade graduating class,” Mr. Hitch said. “But I felt so rewarded, all of them moving on to high school and in a better place than when I first met them.
“I know my kids are going to do amazing in the next chapter of life. I will miss them.”
He will always have their letters. Just like Danuser will always cherish his email.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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