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Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers

by Spark Program, Inc.
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Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Empowering apprenticeships for middle schoolers
Bay Area Spark student Kheilaun and his mentor
Bay Area Spark student Kheilaun and his mentor

This school year, Spark premiered a new program highlight - Share Your Spark events and activities that serve as the culmination of the first 10 weeks of the program year. Share Your Spark events are the midpoint in the program cycle and allow Spark students and their mentors to share their Spark projects with fellow students, teachers, mentor coworkers and others. Share Your Spark events encourage students to pause and reflect on all they have learned during their first semester in the program while reserving the large-scale, capstone celebration for citywide Discovery Events that take place at the end of the program year each spring.

Spark's very first Share Your Spark events occurred across the country and through Spark Online in fall 2015! There are three ways for students to Share Your Spark: online through Spark Online, at their mentor’s workplace or at school. Nearly 40 companies nationwide hosted Share Your Spark at work events, with student and mentor pairs from 68 different organizations participating. Eight Spark school partners (and counting!) are also hosting their own Share Your Spark at school events. Here are some Share Your Spark highlights from Spark's regions:

In the Bay Area, Kheilaun, a 7th grader at Westlake Middle School in Oakland, built a battery-powered car with his mentor, a Linux Administrator at PG&E. Kheilaun started the semester off with some behavioral and academic challenges and frequently struggled to understand behavioral expectations and to engage fully with his apprenticeship. However, as he and his mentor began the kinesthetic work of their project throughout the semester, Kheilaun made a huge turnaround. By the end of the semester, Kheilaun had become a model Spark student, expressing dismay that the next apprenticeship was not until March! 

In Chicago, students from Caesar Chavez Multicultural Academy, a school on Chicago’s west side, visited the Spark office every Wednesday to meet with mentors from Spark’s national and Chicago teams. Spark Chicago Volunteer Manager, J.D. Van Slyke coached his student Diego as he interviewed a video game designer, SWAT officers and Google engineers for a new podcast called "What Are Those....Jobs!?"

Spark LA held a citywide Share Your Spark event at Dodger Stadium this fall. Students Vanessa, Lisa, and A'mya worked with their mentors at HBO to create a red carpet premier for their favorite show, Scream Queens. The location they chose was the famous Hollywood Forever cemetery. They created an event plan, guest list, budget and a model.

In the spring semester, Spark students will gear up for a second apprenticeship with inspiring mentors nationwide with a culminating Discovery Event taking place in each region. Spark is so proud of the accomplishments of all Spark students this fall! 

Spark Chicago students and their Spark mentors
Spark Chicago students and their Spark mentors

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Spark's mission is driven by a key principle - the middle grades matter. Research shows that the seventh and eighth grades - the formative time in students' lives when as many as 60% of students become “chronically disengaged” in their education- are vital for preparing young people for success in high school and beyond. To holistically address the needs of middle grades students during this pivotal moment in their education and their lives, Spark is embarking on a transformational project to directly provide students with resources, support and programming aimed specifically at helping them transition from middle school to high school. 

In tandem with Spark's traditional middle grades mentoring and skills-building programming, Spark's High School Readiness and Transition (HSRT) Initiative will guide students through the process of evaluating their high school options, selecting the right school for them and developing key social-emotional skills preparing them to transition to the faster-pace, greater responsibility of high school. 

Spark knows that this programming is critical for the success of young people, particularly from under-resourced communities. In fact, research shows that two-thirds of high school dropouts either did not complete ninth grade or repeated ninth grade only to drop out later. In Spark’s four regions, district graduation rates show that 40% of students drop out of high school. More than half of the students in the United States who do not complete their high school education come from roughly 5% of high schools. These “dropout factories” typically have graduation rates less than 60%, well below the national average of 80%. 

Spark is working to fix the leaky bucket of ninth grade by ensuring that eight graders are prepared for the challenges of high school. The goal of the High School Readiness and Transition Initiative is to help young students select high schools that are a good fit for them, successfully navigate the tough ninth grade year and ultimately graduate on time with a greater likelihood of college enrollment.

This work is made possible by Spark's largest grant received to date, a $1.2 million investment by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The grant will support Spark in refining and scaling a major part of its programming that aids middle grade students in the high school transition process. The Initiative was designed based on a pilot in Chicago stemming from a collaborative partnership between Spark and Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Career and Technical Education. In Chicago, there is significant student mobility between high schools, which suggests a need for additional transition supports to help families identify the best school option for their children. Now, Spark will continue its work in the Chicago community while scaling this programming nationally. 

The HSRT Initiative includes counseling workshops to help students examine their high school options; a dynamic high school database plus resource guides with step-by-step processes for high school application and enrollment; sessions covering the social and emotional aspects of high school transition; and monthly check-ins and a peer support system between younger and older Spark alumni. Spark is privileged to partner with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and to have the opportunity to grow and deepen its commitment to underserved students’ success in high school and beyond.

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Ten years ago, Chris Balme had an idea. As a teacher in West Philadelphia, Chris saw a wealth of potential in the students from his seventh grade class but observed an evident disconnect between what they were learning in the classroom and their understanding of how it applied in the real world. Stemming from that observation, the Spark Program was born.

Chris, working with co-founder Melia Dicker, launched the program in the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 2011 with 11 students in Redwood City. Ten years, five more cities, and thousands of student-mentor matches later, Spark’s mission to create apprenticeships for youth from underserved communities encourages seventh and eighth graders from the Peninsula to Philadelphia to experience first-hand the relevance of education beyond the classroom. Spark students explore careers, build confidence, skills and social capital needed to be engaged in their education, on track for high school graduation and ready for success in high school and beyond.

In June, Spark concluded its most impactful year of programming to date. Across Spark’s four regions, nearly 900 middle grades students were matched with a caring, adult mentor and challenged to complete a project that tackles a real world problem that interests them. Through this program, Spark is making a great impact. Nationally, 92 percent of Spark students have graduated or are on track to graduate on time. While growing its impact and reach in all four regions, Spark is investing in quality, scale and long-term sustainability to be able to serve more students in more regions in the future.

During the 2016 program year, Spark is making program enhancements to expand its reach and programming to better serve students in need of support. With the kick-off of fall apprenticeships right around the corner, Spark is putting the finishing touches on Spark Online, a web-based platform that delivers Spark’s programming in a fun and interactive way from a digital environment. This year, Spark is projecting to serve more than 1,000 students throughout Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and the Bay Area while continuing to have strong impacts for students preparing them to be engaged, on track and ready for their high school and future careers.      

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Spark representative at the Summit.
Spark representative at the Summit.

On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, leaders from around the country convened at Meet in the Middle: Expanded Learning Summit in Washington, D.C. Spark was a convening partner alongside leaders from across the field at the local, state and national levels. Together, they hosted a daylong event focused on making expanded learning opportunities - like mentoring and apprenticeships - the new normal for all students.

With a mission aligned greatly to that of Spark’s, the Summit increased middle grades students’ access to innovative and diverse learning opportunities. These experiences and activities provide the critical support and real-world experiences that help shape students’ futures.

The middle grade years are some of the most pivotal times in a student’s life. The Expanded Learning Summit brought together schools and community organizations from across the country to refocus this attention. Joined by other leaders in the field, Spark CEO Jason Cascarino discussed Mentorship & Civic Engagement to examine the vital role that mentors and volunteers play in supporting and sustaining expanded learning opportunities for students. Additionally, Spark National Board Chair Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook moderated a discussion on the importance of innovation in expanding approaches to learning and mentorship for students and school communities.

Spark was also pleased to have Anthony Brown, a Parent and Community Ombudsman for Henry C. Lea School in Philadelphia, share his first-hand insight regarding expanded learning. The Lea School currently partners with Spark Philadelphia and has nearly 20 students paired with Spark mentors in workplace-based apprenticeships.

Spark is grateful for the leadership of peer organizations Citizen Schools and Higher Achievement for spearheading the Summit and for the collaboration of fellow thought leaders, policymakers and practitioners who are committed to supporting every student during their most critical, but often-neglected, middle grade years. 

2015 Expanded Learning Summit
2015 Expanded Learning Summit
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A hush fell over the crowd as she stepped up - she had a feeling that now was her moment to shine. As the lights of L.A. Dodger Stadium filled the room, she cleared her voice and swung, whole-heartedly for the proverbial fence. “My friend got bullied,” Litzully, an eighth-grader at Bethune Middle School in L.A.'s Florence neighborhood, explained as she presented to her family, friends and peers on her Spark Project that builds an online community for LBGT students. But the crowd was not gathered to see the Dodgers take on a cross-town rival, on that Tuesday night in December. Instead, friends, family, peers teachers and school staff from across the Los Angeles community gather for Spark’s Fall 2014 Discovery Night, held at Dodger Stadium in partnership with the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation.

 Discovery Night is the capstone event for each Spark apprenticeship cycle in all four of Spark’s regions - LA, Philadelphia, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay. Spark students, mentors, families, teachers, and community members gather to view each student’s work and celebrate their many achievements from their 10-week apprenticeship. Spark LA’s Discovery Night served as the first-ever collective event bringing together all Spark LA school partners, students, mentors, friends, and family for one event celebrating the successes of more than 250 Spark LA students. This Discovery Night was the largest ever with more than 1,000 people in attendance and 261 Spark Projects on display.

 During the event, students were thrilled to present their scale models, websites, building designs, and more at such an exciting and iconic venue. Students that completed apprenticeships at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences screened their films in a special screening room while other students discussed their projects with former Dodgers player, Dennis Powell. This event was even feature in the Los Angeles Times. Because of the event's wild success in highlighting the brightness of the Spark program, other Spark regions are assessing the potential to bring this unique experience to students in their regions as well.

 Through the support of generous donors like you, Spark will continue to provide students on the bubble the opportunity to dream big, engage in their education and invest in their future success. On behalf of Spark and the nearly 1,000 students we will serve this year, we are truly grateful for your support.

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Organization Information

Spark Program, Inc.

Location: Chicago, IL - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @SparkProgram
Spark Program, Inc.
Rachelle  Damminger
Project Leader:
Rachelle Damminger
Chicago, IL United States

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