Grand Canyon begins west Phoenix tutoring program

students-asu-common-coreWhile Tucson’s Mayor Jonathan Rothschild begs Tucsonans to become tutors to the students of the failing Tucson Unified School District, Grand Canyon University has launched a free tutoring program for students at Alhambra High School in hopes of raising the math, reading skills and confidence of underperforming students at the Phoenix school.

The City of Tucson rebuffed an offer this year by the University to locate a new campus in the most economically challenged area of town and the district. Grand Canyon then opted to expand in the Phoenix Valley area.

Grand Canyon University’s groundbreaking program, dubbed the Learning Lounge because of its relaxed and inviting setting, is the centerpiece of the university’s K-12 Outreach Program, which developed after discussions between Brian Mueller, GCU’s President and CEO, and Kent Scribner, Superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District. Officials say the program is part of GCU’s continuing mission to help its neighbors — the people and businesses of its west Phoenix neighborhood — thrive and prosper.

“Brian recognized Alhambra High as our hometown high school that we have to do something to help,” said Joe Veres, a former middle school principal who is Director of K-12 outreach at GCU. “He said, ‘We don’t want to be the strangers across the street, we want to be partners with them. We are a village raising a village.'”

GCU has hired and trained 30 student tutors to work with underperforming high school students between 3-8 p.m. weekdays at the Learning Lounge, located in an office adjacent to the university. More tutors will be hired as the program expands, and other high schools will be invited to participate in the future. In early 2014, the Learning Lounge will move to the bottom floor of a new four-story classroom building being built on campus.

Alhambra High, less than a half-mile west of GCU’s main campus, is home to 2,800 students. The Learning Lounge will initially target freshmen from Alhambra but is open to all students.

In 2011, Alhambra was rated a “D” school by the Arizona Department of Education based on its students’ poor showing on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS). Only 51 percent of Alhambra students passed the reading portion of the AIMS.

Since then, Alhambra hired Claudio Coria as its principal and his initiatives have raised the school’s status to the “C” level. Coria, Veres and GCU believe Alhambra is on its way to “A” school status.

“GCU has been part of this community for many, many decades and its leaders understand the challenges we face given our diverse student body,” said Coria. “The university’s investment in this program ensures that Alhambra High students and teachers have the support they need to reach their education goals.”

One-on-one and group tutoring sessions are available. The Learning Lounge features 12 tutoring offices, a computer lounge, more than a dozen couches and overstuffed chairs, four work stations and a cafe.

“The goal is to create a safe, relevant environment with non-sterile-type classrooms,” Veres said. “It will be a cool, hip place where kids want to go after school. And once they get here, we’ll help them with the academics.”

In her 20 years of teaching, Debbi Paiz, one of four Alhambra teachers who trained the tutors on the district’s curriculum, said she never has seen a program like this. And it couldn’t come at a better time, Paiz said, because her students can’t succeed in the world if they are reading at a fifth-grade level.

“You will see my students start to believe that they can go on to school, at GCU or somewhere else,” she said. “Right now, they think it’s a fantasy, but we’re trying to break those walls down, the economic, family and language barriers that so many of them have to success.”

GCU had no shortage of students wanting to become tutors at the lounge.

Senior Heather Shamburg, who plans to become a youth minister, views education as a primary need that GCU has a duty to provide to Alhambra’s students.

“We are stepping out, and not just building people within our gates, but pouring ourselves into the local community, and I think that’s huge,” Shamburg said. “If you can’t mission where you are, how can you mission elsewhere in the world?”

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