It’s a rare week that Dr. Joe Veres doesn’t get a phone call from a parent asking to bring his or her child to the Learning Lounge for homework help.
Grand Canyon University’s free, after-school tutoring program opened last September with a target audience of Alhambra High students struggling with math, reading, writing and AIMS test-preparation skills. Since then, more than 325 students at Alhambra, Maryvale High and Bourgade Catholic High, all in Phoenix, and Faith Christian School in Mesa have received nearly 1,800 hours of tutoring.
Of those Alhambra students, 22 passed the reading portion of the AIMS test, 11 passed the writing portion and nine passed the math portion.
Now word of its success is getting out among parents of a younger set.
“At least five kindergartners’ parents have called to see if they can bring them by,” said Veres, director of GCU’s K-12 outreach.
No 5-year-olds have been accepted for tutoring just yet, but the Lounge, from its expansive digs in the University’s new classroom building in the heart of campus, is open for business this summer, and its 10 GCU student-tutors are busy with a new clientele.
Free summer school draws teens
For the first time, GCU is offering free summer school classes on campus to students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch programs at Alhambra and other high schools. Sixty students from Alhambra, North, Metro Tech and St. Mary’s Catholic high schools are enrolled in four-credit college courses in psychology, public speaking or justice studies, which they attend three mornings a week for seven weeks.
Classes began June 3 with a warm welcome, free bus passes and photo IDs from the Lounge. Throughout the week, students dropped in for help with their first psychology papers. For those who couldn’t afford to buy or rent the pricey justice studies textbook, copies were available for them to read there. Encouragement was offered to students facing the terror of public speaking.
St. Mary’s Food Bank, which for months has been supplying nutritious lunches for students at the Lounge, has added breakfast for summer school. On the menu: everything from cinnamon waffles, wheat bagels, peanut butter and yogurt to turkey sandwiches, green salad, string cheese and oranges.
Among the summer school students was Maribel Martinez, 16, an Alhambra junior in the justice studies class. She plans to go to college and would be the first in her family to do so. Last school year, she used the Lounge to bring her failing grades in biology and honors geometry to Bs and As, respectively.
“I like it here,” Martinez said. “They help me a lot with my classes and support me with things that are going on in my life. They always say, ‘Keep on trying.’”
Experiencing ‘the learn’
The Lounge is known for its cool, purple swag. It was something Veres and Arlin Guadian, program manager for K-12 outreach, ordered to coax Alhambra students through the door last fall. (Now they show up more for the camaraderie than the coffee mugs.) Recently, a new slogan — “Experience the Learn” — debuted on T-shirts and other Lounge merchandise, reflecting the program’s evolution.
“Building academics was and is priority number one,” Veres said. “This started out as an opportunity for tutoring, but it has become something more than that. It’s become an experience. Our students have been captivated by this – there’s a ‘You really did this for us?’ type of feeling. These kids want to be on campus and hang out with college students.”
The feeling is mutual for math tutor Juan Villegas, a pre-pharmacy GCU sophomore who says he is “not a huge people person.” He has made many friends at the Lounge and used his math teaching as reinforcement in his own classes. But there’s something else.
“I was over at Alhambra and a student who had come to the Lounge every day, from 3 to 8, to study for his AIMS test told me, ‘I passed! Thank you!’” Villegas recalled. “Another student told me I was a person that he saw as a role model because I had helped him look at his work in a new perspective. That felt pretty good.”
The anecdotes are endless: tests and classes passed, graduation requirements met, friendships made and, not surprisingly, the love of Jesus shared.
Having graduated from Alhambra last month, Norberto Rayas has been hired as a Lounge tutor and will start classes at GCU in August. Rayas, who wants to be a high school math teacher, was an Alhambra tutor last semester at its feeder school, Andalucia Middle School, and found it gratifying. He already feels welcome in the Lounge and at GCU.
“I initially wanted to go to NAU, but GCU found me at my school and offered me a good scholarship, and it was the only school that did that,” Rayas said. “The other schools just sent me a postcard.”
Teachable moments in faith
One of the aspects of being a tutor that Cristina Hilt has most enjoyed is the spiritual component, from prayer time with the other tutors to the “God questions” from students.
An experience with one student, who had multicolored hair and a “tough girl” vibe, has stayed with Hilt. The girl interrupted Hilt’s math lessons with questions about happiness, sharing her insecurities and her struggle with an eating disorder. Hilt responded with encouragement and hope.
“There is one day in particular I will never forget while I was tutoring her,” said Hilt, who is scheduled to graduate in December with a psychology degree. “She randomly began talking about God. She asked if I believed, and why I believed what I did. … She explained how she knew there was a God but did not know much about Him. She also said she prays sometimes and feels better afterward.
“As she was explaining more examples of her sensing God’s presence, I felt God pushing me to ask if she knew Jesus. … Of course I was nervous, but I did. After some time of explaining the Gospel, I felt God wanting me to ask her if she wanted to accept Him into her heart. With courage provided by Him, I asked, ‘Do you know how to accept Jesus into your heart?’
“She was thirsty for it, she wanted the truth,” Hilt said. “At the end of our tutoring session, she said she was going to go home and ask Him into her heart. I was blown away. That’s how I see God’s purpose in this program.”
Leigh Critchley, executive director of GCU’s K-12 Pathways, said the Learning Lounge resonates with young people because it offers just the right mix of homework, support, food and friendship.
“Social, learning, peer support and mentoring,” Critchley said. “To me, that’s an amazing combination.”
Contact Janie Magruder at 602.639.8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.