Spark: Integrating Mentoring and Connected Learning

Sarah Schwartz - The Chronicles of Evidence-Based Mentoringby Sarah Schwartz

As described in an earlier post, connected learning is learning that is interest-driven, socially-embedded, and academically-oriented. In this post, I wanted to highlight Spark, an innovative program serving middle school students that is integrating mentoring and connected learning in an apprenticeship model. I had the privilege of attending a Match Event at one of their programs in Chicago. As mentors, mentees, and parents/guardians met for the first time, I was particularly impressed with the way that mentees were asking their mentors questions about themselves and their work and sharing responsibility for the conversation at a level rarely seen in middle school students. Upon speaking with the program director, I learned that this was in part due to the Spark Leadership Curriculum which supports the apprenticeships and includes lessons on meeting new people, making conversation, and active listening, within larger units on career readiness and identity development.  The following Q&A with Kelly Dwyer, Spark Executive Director of Evaluation and Data Systems, describes the program model and how it fosters connected learning.

 Sarah Schwartz (SS): Can you describe your program model?

Kelly Dwyer (KD): Spark works with schools to identify seventh and eighth grade students in need of support to stay motivated in school.  Spark offers a program focused on: Developing Identity, Building Community and Exploring the Future. The Spark program offers students a unique in-school curriculum focused on skills such as relationship building, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and responsibility, as well as opportunities to practice those skills one-on-one in a real-life workplace setting with the guidance of a caring adult mentor. Mentors are professionals from local companies who agree to host students once a week over the course of a semester. Spark students work with their mentors to explore careers and create a project or presentation of their choice that they present to their school and community at a culminating Discovery Night event. During their apprenticeships, Spark mentors engage students in conversations about career and life goals, connecting school to future success and learning to be active and successful community members. The apprenticeship experience is complemented by a Leadership Curriculum taught by a trained teacher who guides all Spark apprentices in weekly activities to help them reflect on what they are learning in their apprenticeships and connect their learning back to their school experiences. Spark students participate in two, 10-week long apprenticeships during a school year, and Spark mentors participate in a one to two hour training focusing on adolescent development and skills for working with young people. Spark students’ classroom engagement, grades, attendance and social emotional mindsets are tracked to measure impact and continually improve the program.

SS: How does Spark differ from traditional mentoring programs?

KD: The Spark model was developed by educators and is the only program of its kind in the US.  These elements of our program help to make Spark unique:

–        Spark works with students during the middle school years – a time when children’s sense of self is developing and they are making critical decisions about their futures. Research shows that the middle school grades demonstrate the strongest decline in school engagement – evidence that the path to drop out begins at this point in students’ lives.

–        Students and mentors meet at the workplace, and students and mentors are matched based on a multi-point assessment which matches students’ personality, skills and interests relating to mentors’ in specific careers.

–        The one-to-one nature of the program allows student/mentor pairs to learn and move at their own pace – building confidence in students and a strong relationship between student and mentor.

–        The Leadership Curriculum allows students an opportunity to reflect on their mentor experience with peers as well as a trained teacher and make explicit connections between their apprenticeship and school success.

–        The program focuses on improving school engagement and academic achievement through boosting skills such as leadership, goal setting, perseverance and grit – skills which are strongly correlated with high demand workplace skills such as teamwork and problem solving.

SS: Spark appears to be a great demonstration of how mentoring can foster connected learning. Can you talk about how Spark fosters learning that is interest-driven, socially supported, and academically connected?

KD: The Spark experience is student-centered from the outset, asking teachers to identify students who might be a good fit for the program using a 15-point assessment tool, which includes measures of academic performance, classroom engagement and social-emotional health. Students who are selected are asked to complete an application, which asks them to rank their interest in a variety of areas from “sitting quietly and reading a book” to “planning and leading teams of my peers.” Potential mentors are asked to describe their daily job using the same criteria – which creates a match specifically tailored to a students’ own description of themselves. Spark students are connected to each other through weekly leadership classes and encouraged to use this opportunity to talk about their experiences with each other as well as make connections between the Spark program and school success. Spark students remain in a single cohort throughout the academic year, providing an opportunity to build a positive community of students with similar goals within their school.

SS: What is the purpose of the Leadership Curriculum that accompanies the apprenticeships? Can you describe the goals of the class?

KD:  The school-based Spark Leadership Curriculum teaches critical life skills such as goal setting, active listening, networking, interviewing, public speaking and time management.  It’s an opportunity for students to translate apprenticeship learning into classroom learning.  The curriculum helps students to see that their daily classes are preparing them for desirable careers and exciting futures. The class is also an opportunity for Spark cohorts to build positive relationships with each other. Outside of a traditional academic class, students build relationships with each other that might not have otherwise been built, and learn things about themselves and each other that they did not know.

SS: Do you think there are aspects of the leadership class that might be applicable to more traditional mentoring programs? For example, might some lessons be beneficial to include in all mentee training?

KD: Spark’s Leadership Curriculum was developed to specifically bridge skills learned and topics covered in Spark apprenticeships, with learning that takes place in seventh and eighth grade classrooms.  We believe that topics covered in the Curriculum like goal setting, listening and public speaking are important for most middle school students. Engagement is heightened when these topics are reinforced through Spark apprenticeships.  The Curriculum also encourages students to reflect on their mentoring experience and think about their own self-image and how it is related to their future goals. Reflection is a key part of any kind of learning experience.

SS: Can you talk a little about the logistics of the program? For example, who teaches the leadership class? Is it part of the school day or an after school program? How about the logistics of having students go to mentors’ workplaces?

KD: We work with each of our partner schools to identify an educator who teaches the Spark Leadership Curriculum to students in our program.  The material is typically taught during the school day.  Spark staff works closely with partner schools and parents to plan the logistics of student travel to mentor workplaces.  Student safety is a top priority for Spark.  Each student reviews his or her transportation plan with both his or her mentor and parent/guardian.  Spark staff help students transition from school to their apprenticeship location, and are on call from the time students leave school to travel to the workplace until they are home or back at their school safely. Spark students carry their apprenticeship plan with key phone numbers and emergency instructions with them each week.

SS: What are some of the challenges your program has encountered in its efforts to connect low-income middle school students with mentors working in careers aligned with student interests?

KD: Recruiting enough mentors each semester can be a challenge but we have seen improvement by building partnerships with companies and working to recruit 20-50 mentors at each office location. As a national program, there are region-specific challenges, such as a lack of public transportation infrastructure, that each region works closely with staff, school-based and other partners to address. As we grow in the number of students we are serving across the country, we have become more focused on understanding what happens to students after their participation in our program. We want to be more intentional both about working with programs serving high school students to ensure we are providing a pipeline of opportunities to Spark alumni, as well as building good systems to continue to track data on students after they complete Spark.

SS: Can you tell us about a success story from your program?

KD: Sonya was one of the first students to be matched with a mentor in a Spark apprenticeship in the San Francisco Bay Area nearly 10 years ago.

As a middle school student, Sonya had a great deal working against her.  Her mother immigrated to the US from Fiji with less than a high school education.  Sonya’s parents divorced and her mother struggled to raise two daughters.  Sonya eventually found herself in the foster care system.

Sonya was matched with a mentor in an area of her interest through the Spark program at her school and remembers, “Spark not only was a learning experience but also an escape from culture clash and constant frustration.”  One of Sonya’s two Spark apprenticeships exposed her to the career that she is pursuing now, social work. Her mentor, Carolyn, worked as a case manager with HIP Housing in San Mateo. “She taught me all about social work, empathy and the power of positivity,” recalls Sonya.

This past spring, Sonya graduated with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity from Stanford University thanks to a well-earned full scholarship!  Today, Sonya is living on her own in Los Angeles and working with a B Corporation as a “Social Programs Associate,” developing programming for low-income, minority communities in the region.    Next year, she will have the chance to more deeply study social work at University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

SS: Any thing else you want to add?

KD: As Spark grows and continues to improve our program model, we are focused on using data as a tool not only to measure our impact on students but also to create tailored learning experiences for students. Using this strategy, Spark has seen success in helping students:

Develop more positive attitudes and beliefs about themselves and their futures

  • In post program surveys, 93% of Spark students reported that they plan to pursue education beyond high school
  • 83% of Spark students reported that Spark made them more interested in learning new things
  • 85% of Spark students reported learning how to better communicate with adults
  • 92% of Spark family members surveyed reported they feel their child’s personal development has improved “A great deal” since participating in Spark

Participate in their own learning in a positive and constructive way

  • 70% of Spark students improved their classroom behavior (coming to class prepared, dealing with failure, taking risks in the class and enthusiasm about learning) in at least one of these dimensions after participating in Spark

Improve their middle school performance

  • 71% of Spark students missed less than 2 days of school during their Spark semester
  • 69% of Spark students increased their grades in Math, English or both subjects after one semester of the program