Spark's workplace apprenticeship programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia empower low-income middle school youth to build the self-assurance and resilience they need to develop into healthy, productive adults. Education is a crucial foundation for a healthy life, but many disadvantaged young people face lifelong hardships because they lack a key to stable employment: a high school diploma. In Spark's cities, up to half of students don't graduate from high school on time, if ever. To help students aim for positive futures, Spark enrolls low-income 7th and 8th graders who are struggling to realize their potential. In each 10-week program session, students explore careers through one-on-one apprenticeships with working professionals, and build personal and professional skills through Spark's leadership curriculum. In 2013, Spark will provide at least 1,000 students with real-world learning experiences to help them, in the words of one apprentice, "catch their dreams."
Spark combines entrepreneurial problem-solving, untapped resources, and an age-old practice: apprenticeships. While teaching in 2003, Spark co-founder and CEO Chris Balme realized that his 7th graders were at a developmental tipping point, but lacked a sense of what school and determination could help them achieve. They risked joining the millions of students who drop out of school and face poverty, poor health, and other hardships.
For Chris, the need for an early intervention to empower youth to make positive choices, realize their strengths, and set goals to guide them into healthy adulthood was clear. So was the solution: local workplaces, an untapped resource where students could explore inspiring career paths. Today, Spark draws on diverse human resources, from working professionals to school administrators. While young web design or law apprentices master coding or closing arguments, Spark engages teachers, parents, mentors, and community leaders in supporting students; personal and professional development.
Spark encourages a sense of shared community investment across generational, cultural, and socioeconomic divides in ensuring that all youth have opportunities for success. While Spark provides trainings, materials, and support, volunteer mentors, partner school teachers, and apprentices ultimately drive the program. Spark students take on responsibility to be present, both physically and mentally, during their weekly apprenticeship and leadership class sessions. They gain self-confidence, communication skills, and other tools they can use to chart their own paths and to motivate their peers. Mentors learn to work with adolescents, a highly transferable and useful skill, and introduce their colleagues to a young population they might rarely interact with otherwise.
Through deep, personalized commitments to individual students, Spark ultimately strives toward systemic change. By working closely with students and teachers, Spark aims to shift academic environments so that apprenticeships become a standard component of middle school life.
As a national program with an 8-year success record, Spark has developed a strong funding base of foundations, corporations, and individuals. Spark's national and regional boards provide substantial fundraising support and strategic guidance. Internally, Spark continues to grow in size and experience, and significantly increased staff capacity in 2012. Over the next three years, Spark will work toward the goals in its 2013-2015 Strategic Plan, which outlines a sustainable growth trajectory. The apprenticeship model depends heavily on local community resources. Spark constantly develops new ways to tap into human capital in its six cities, particularly through partnerships with companies such as Hulu, which recently offered mentors for 20 Spark students in Los Angeles . In Philadelphia, Spark works with students from the Wharton School's Social Impact Initiative, an innovative collaboration that could easily be replicated to support programming in other regions.
Spark's successful regional expansions prove that the apprenticeship model is versatile and replicable. In 2005, Spark started as a single-school pilot program in Redwood City, California. Today, in addition to that original community, Spark serves students in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, and Philadelphia. With each new city launch, Spark adapts to the local community, tweaking mentor recruitment and transportation strategies to fit each city's culture and infrastructure.
Spark's long-term vision is to make apprenticeships a widely available approach to reinvigorating disconnected students' interest in school. To work toward the goal of making apprenticeships a common middle school experience, Spark is developing leadership curriculum, training tools, and other materials that schools or providers could easily adapt. Spark also hopes to work with scholars in youth development and education to assess, hone, and spread the apprenticeship model.
Spark obtains feedback from students, teachers, mentors, and parents through pre- and post-program surveys, and draws on school data to monitor shifts in grades, attendance, and behavior. The qualitative and quantitative results help Spark assess changes in students' skill sets, college and career goals, excitement about learning, and other factors aligned with success in school and beyond. Spark tracks immediate and long-term student outcomes, ranging from improved academic engagement and performance in the semester after participation to on-time high school graduation. As of 2012, 92% of Spark alumni had graduated from high school on time, far surpassing the national average. For Spark apprentices who completed the program in Spring 2012, the future looks similarly bright: Surveyed students reported gaining communication, networking, and other skills that can help them now and in the future, and teachers reported that 100% of them emerged from the program with increased social capital.