Spark’s Answer to the Dropout Crisis
Posted by Chris Balme on Mar 09, 2011 - 06:28 PM
Meet Tania*, 14 years old. Her story is typical of many students in urban public schools across the United States. No one in her family had completed high school. In seventh grade, she was struggling academically, and assumed that she would follow in her mother's footsteps and become a cashier at Wal-Mart. At school, Tania had not been asked much about her aspirations -- as it turns out, she dreamed of becoming an attorney -- and as a result she was not clear on how school could ever get her to that goal.
Like so many students, Tania was in danger of lowering her aspirations at a very early age. It's a classic path to dropping out - as a 2006 Gates Foundation study pointed out, 47% of dropouts said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting -- in other words, classes seemed irrelevant to their lives.**
As a nation we are not painting clear, personalized pictures for students of how school can be a launchpad to a very bright future. 1.2 million kids like Tania drop out of high school every year, and it too often starts with a sense that school is irrelevant to the their daily realities and dreams. Students are intensely curious about the world of work -- what do all those adults out there do every day? Yet how often do students get to explore that as part of their formal education?
The answer: if the students come from a middle-to-high income background, chances are someone is helping them make the connection. Their family's social or professional connections may help them secure a summer job or internship, or at least a take-your-child-to-work day that demonstrates that a good education leads to a positive future. Students like Tania often don't get that chance. Even if their parents are encouraging and emphasize the importance of doing well in school, they may not be able to open doors to the workplaces which most compellingly demonstrate the power of a good education.
I co-founded and now run a non-profit dropout-prevention program called Spark, and last year, we enrolled Tania into our San Francisco programs. Spark focuses on middle-school youth who are at-risk of dropping out, and matches them with one-on-one apprenticeships in real workplaces after school where students receive mentoring and can finally connect the dots between school and real professions. We asked Tania the same question we ask each new Spark student: if you could try any job, any profession, what would it be?
Tania had a ready answer: she wanted to be a lawyer. As we talked more, it turned out she had no idea how that actually happens, and had already written off college as an unaffordable option for her family. It's easy to conclude that middle-school students are too young to have to understand such connections. Yet remember what happens in middle-school: students in most urban communities have their first opportunities to experiment with drugs, sex, and alcohol, and in many of our cities, face pressure to join a gang. If they don't see positive alternatives, it's doubly hard to resist the peer pressure.
Spark next matched Tania with a lawyer, Erik, who had volunteered to be a mentor. They met at an orientation, and began a semester-long apprenticeship together. Each Thursday afternoon after school, Tania went to Erik's office in a downtown skyscraper. At first their conversations had little to do with the law, as they talked more broadly about college, about how much money was needed to live the life Tania wanted, and about the options Tania had. They compared the life of a Wal-Mart cashier with that of a lawyer, and discovered that Tania had expected a six-figure starting salary as a cashier. That was quickly rectified, and then another false assumption was corrected -- that Tania could never afford college. By the end of the semester, Tania had designed and acted out a mock trial, which she performed for her peers at school. More importantly, she had aspirations that now felt tangible, and had discovered just how much of a difference her motivation in school could make.
Alongside the apprenticeship, Spark students also participate in a Leadership Class at school, delivered by school staff during or after the school day. At its heart, this is a class in relevance -- making the connections between professional roles the students are exploring and the daily learning asked of them at school. Students are stunned to realize that math is useful in video game design, or that hard work in English class is necessary to become a successful attorney. How have we as a society managed to obscure these connections? Perhaps it's because we simply tell the students that academics and real life are connected, instead of showing them. With budget cuts having stripped away all but the most core academic classes in urban public schools, the need to provide engaging and motivating opportunities for students to get excited about learning is all the more critical. At Spark, they experience the relevance firsthand as they complete their apprenticeship, and the teaching in the Spark class is largely peer-to-peer, as students teach each other what they've learned in their apprenticeships.
Spark is demonstrating a new approach to addressing the dropout crisis, one that taps a new pool of resources -- professional "at your desk” volunteers -- and connects them with students in a way that makes education, and personal dreams, suddenly much more relevant. The impact of the program is becoming apparent -- an initial study of 57 of the first Spark students shows that 56 graduated on-time or are currently enrolled in high school, equivalent to a 98.2% retention rate, and substantially higher than the expected retention rate for students with equivalent demographic factors. While this study is small due to the small size of Spark's initial cohorts, it indicates a very positive trajectory and will be further studied as larger cohorts progress through school.
Spark has grown from a pilot program in Redwood City, California in 2005, to a nationally replicating non-profit, serving northern and southern California, launching in Chicago in mid-2011, and expanding to the east coast in 2012. We are actively looking for volunteers, supporters, and education leaders to join us in providing once-in-a-lifetime apprenticeship opportunities in middle-school students across the United States. Spark didn't invent apprenticeships, but it has shown that they can be very powerful 21st century tools in helping to end our nation's dropout crisis.
Find out more at www.sparkprogram.org
* The student's name has been changed to protect her privacy.
** The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts; A report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. March 2006.