Matching kids with adults who live their dream
Paul Van Slambrouck writes about a program which puts together at-risk teens and business-world mentors
San Francisco, CA - To the pumping beat of Aretha Franklin, and with pizza-laden paper plates poised precariously on their laps, families sit in the crowd at the assembly hall of Horace Mann Middle School.
They are waiting. They are looking slightly anxious.
It’s not graduation day – though it is something akin. The seventh and eighth-graders here are at a pivotal time in their young lives, when school dropout problems can begin, experts say.
Recognizing the threat, these families are participating in a one-of-a-kind program called Spark, which aims to boost graduation rates through one-on-one apprenticeships.
The meeting will pair students with volunteer apprentice teachers in what Spark cofounder Chris Balme calls a “beautiful and amazingly awkward moment.” Lawyers, hair stylists, and software developers will meet up with students who have selected their occupations as the ones they would most like to learn about.
The adult volunteers march in, find their apprentices, and begin a relationship that will likely transform both their students and themselves.
Spark apprenticeships offer weekly, semester-long, one-on-one workplace experiences to economically disadvantaged teens.
So far 98 percent of Spark
In 2004, Chris and Melia Dicker, both teachers, founded Spark. For the first two years neither took a salary; all the funds they raised went into the program. Today, Spark has a staff of 16 and a $1.1 million annual budget.
Apprenticeships are “not rocket science,” says Holly Depatie, Spark board chair. But other mentoring programs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, while pairing youngsters with adults, don’t specifically target learning about jobs.
Spark has grown rapidly since its inception. Enrollment grew by more than 50% year over year, and after five years, Spark expanded from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in 2010 and Chicago in 2011, with plans to expand to Oakland and Philadelphia this year.
It’s early to judge Spark’s success, but so far 98 percent of its apprentices have gone on to college or are on track to go.
For the volunteer mentors, the experience is often life-changing, too.
Spark “gave me a new purpose, something that I really care about,” says Erik Newton, a San Francisco attorney who worked with a seventh grade girl from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Back at the Horace Mann orientation, a shy and somewhat withdrawn student, Marchel Smith, found her confidence growing as the night wore on. As part of a Spark exercise, she was asked what superpower she most wished she had. “Walking through walls,” she answered.
That’s exactly what she may be about to do, courtesy of Spark.