One of the best parts of my job as president of Grand Canyon University is the opportunity to meet students who are truly inspirational.
I met one such young lady recently. She grew up in a modest inner-city apartment with her working-class parents, graduated from Maryvale High School with a 4.3 GPA and was the first in her family to go to college. She worked full-time at Wells Fargo Bank while going to college, earning a promotion every year, yet still managed to graduate from GCU in three years. And the money she earned from her job? She bought her parents their first home.
Today, with a degree in hand, she has set new goals for herself.
Her story is inspiring and it reminded me how important it is to harness the passion of our youth and arm them with the tools they need to succeed.
That may sound like a tall order in Arizona, where the K-12 education system lags behind most of the nation. It seems that raising the bar for our schools and training students to become workplace-ready is on the minds of everyone from policymakers and business executives to community leaders and concerned parents.
The looming question is “How do we make it happen?”
Some say improving K-12 education is the responsibility of our state leaders and initiatives like Proposition 123. Funding mechanisms for K-12 education are a good place to start, though I believe the responsibility for strengthening our schools rests with all of us. And to do that, we must also tackle an even bigger issue: poverty.
When you think about students who attend inner-city schools, what occurs between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. is not that different than at schools in more affluent areas of our state. It’s what happens after school – from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. – that puts at-risk youth at a disadvantage. They may not be involved in extra-curricular activities in the same way as affluent students or get much-needed help with their homework from their parents – many of whom may not have finished high school.
I am keenly aware of this problem because GCU’s campus is located in the center of a highly diverse neighborhood with many at-risk youth.
In 2012, GCU opened the Learning Lounge, a free after-school tutoring center, to help students at neighboring Alhambra High School. Initially, many of the 1,700 participating students were shy and uncertain of their abilities, but before long and with help from their GCU student tutors, their confidence blossomed. So did their academic performance.
Alhambra, a D-rated school by the state of Arizona three years ago, was most recently nine points away from a B rating. What’s more, the number of high school graduates at Alhambra increased from 417 in 2013-14 to 536 in 2014-15; Alhambra seniors earned $2.7 million in college scholarships in 2014-15, up from $1.2 million in 2013-14; and the number of students taking advanced placement exams jumped from 174 to 302.
Based on that remarkable success, we are expanding the program to other inner-city schools in the West Valley. In partnership with the Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation, we also have created a fund to provide up to 800 full-tuition scholarships (200 per year) to qualified high school seniors. Those scholarship recipients will then pay it forward as college students by providing 100 hours per year of mentoring and academic support at a Learning Lounge site to assist the next group of high school students behind them.
We call it “Students Inspiring Students: A Neighborhood Scholarship.” At its core, it is a grass-roots, self-funded initiative that is both sustainable and scalable in which students are inspiring students.
The good news is that the initiative requires no government help or intervention and no tax increase. Rather, it is a self-funded program backed by donors that can continue for decades.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the ingenuity or commitment of progressive school principals and superintendents, willing donors and bright college students who are willing to help others succeed.
So while we debate what it takes to fortify Arizona’s future workforce, we must also consider what citizens, organizations, educators and governments can do to transform our schools and our inner-city neighborhoods, too. The outcomes from the Learning Lounge are a shining example of what can happen when we do.
— Brian Mueller is president of Grand Canyon University.