GCU Offers Learning Lounge To Help High School Students Succeed

By  Stina Sieg
February 12, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Grand Canyon University’s Learning Lounge gives high schoolers – like Day Moo, right – a chance to receive one-on-one tutoring from college students. Above, Moo chats with her tutor, Celena Gammon.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
The Learning Lounge has had several success stories since opening about three months ago. Above, tutor Leslie Price puts her arms around her students, Isaul Rodriguez and Sarahi Chavez. With Price’s help, both high school students passed the AIMS.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Debbi Paiz teaches at both the Lounge and nearby Alhambra High School. She says her students have to work many times harder than most teens – because they have to tackle regular classwork and standardized testing, while still learning English.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Somali native Hawa Abukar recently passed her AIMS test with the Lounge’s help. She’s now working on finding a job and going to college.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
The Learning Lounge tutors students with whatever subject they need. Above, Holly McCarthy reads “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” with Phenious Mugisha, a sophomore from Rwanda.

For many teens, high school is difficult enough. But with a language barrier, it can seem impossible. This semester, Grand Canyon University opened a tutoring center that has helped more than 200 high school students, many of whom are still learning English. Grand Canyon calls it the Learning Lounge.

On any given afternoon, about 30 Grand Canyon students gather in portable classroom on campus to give teens one-on-one help with various subjects. On a recent Thursday, one pair was plotting points on a graph. One was reading “Huckleberry Finn,” while another was working through job applications. Teacher Debbi Paiz explained that most of the high school students here live in this low-income, West Phoenix neighborhood .

“And they come and they look, and they’re in awe,” she said, from one of the Lounge’s couches. “They’re like, ‘It doesn’t even look like this is our neighborhood.’”

Paiz stressed that she’s in awe, too — of these students. She’s a reading specialist at the Lounge, but her day job is teaching English Language Learners at nearby Alhambra High School. Her school lags behind state averages when it comes to test scores. For example, in 2013, 70 percent of all Arizona 10th graders tested proficient in writing. At Alhambra, it was only 49 percent.

But Paiz sees her students are motivated to improve.

“They’ve been at school all day — just like I have, and they’re still trucking,” she said. “Here it is, what, going on five o’clock. They’ve been at school since 7:30 this morning. They’re still working. That’s gumption.”

And it isn’t just about getting better grades. It’s about graduating. The Lounge opened in part to help students study for the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, known as the AIMS test. The standardized exam is being phased out in Arizona, starting with this year’s freshman.

But for most high schoolers in the state, passing the AIMS is still a requirement to graduate. Isaul Rodriguez is one of them. He said he felt embarrassed to get help from the Lounge — at first.

“I don’t speak very well, and I feels like, Oh, I don’t know what to say,” he explained. “I don’t have very well vocabulary.”

His friend, Sarahi Chavez, felt a little shy, too. Like Rodriguez, Chavez had already failed the writing portion of the AIMS — four times. That means Chavez was in serious danger of not graduating. She needed help, and she got it from her tutor, Leslie Price.

Price is a freshman at Grand Canyon who worked with both Chavez and Rodriguez for months. Price feels it was a learning experience for all three of them.

“Sarahi would translate for Isaul and I sometimes, and sometimes they would both look at me like, ‘What did you just say?’” she said, as her students giggled. “And, like, we got very good with at trying to communicate with each other, and sometimes just writing it down and sometimes using Google Translate.”

When AIMS test day finally rolled around, Price thinks she was probably as nervous as her students. A few weeks later, the results came out. Rodriguez and Chavez showed up at the Lounge together, with candy bars.

“And they were like, ‘Oh, we passed our AIMS!’” she said.

She also remembered asking them why they were giving her chocolate. She felt they deserved it.

In the three months since the program began, more than 20 students have passed at least one portion of the AIMS after being tutored here. Three students have completely passed. Isaul Rodriguez will graduate this semester. Sarahi Chavez officially finished last semester, but will participate in the graduation ceremony this May. She doesn’t have to walk across the stage. But she will,  for her little brother.

“To show him if I can do it, he can do it also,” she said.

Grand Canyon is looking for more stories like this. Right now, the Learning Lounge is hiring 20 more tutors.