All photos from Spark, used with permission.

High school dropout rates for America’s kids are fodder for depressing thoughts. Nationwide, a full third of students do not graduate high school with a diploma, and 50% of African American and Latino students don’t finish high school on time, according to dropout prevention group America’s Promise Alliance.

In California, “It seems 25% is the general consensus,” says Chris Balme, executive director of the Bay Area’s Spark, a youth apprenticeship program aiming to curb the dropout problem by teaching kids the relevance of school. “It’s much higher than that in the communities that we serve.”

Balme, who is also the co-founder of Spark, started out as a middle school science teacher in west Philadelphia, and he quickly grew alarmed at the condition his community was in. “It was a very eye-opening experience because the students at that school had a 50% dropout rate and 1 out of 6 incarceration rate,” says Balme.

The spark for Spark came from seeing that ample learning opportunities for his students could be found in Philadelphia’s business community. “There were businesses in the community, and none of those places were being used to engage students. Sometimes these are the best paces to learn.” How so? “Show students what school is for by providing a hands on example,” Balme explains.

Balme went on to found Spark in the Bay Area. Currently serving 220 kids total and 100 in San Francisco, the Spark approach is to head off dropouts early by reaching them in middle school and asking one simple question: “What’s your dream job?” Spark board chair John McKee thinks this approach is crucial. “[Spark] doesn’t come in and say, ‘We’re going to make you better at math, or at science, or at English,'” says McKee. “It comes in and says to the kids, ‘What are you interested in?'”

Answers vary wildly, but that’s not the point. “You get everything from ‘I want to be an airplane pilot’ to ‘I want to be an entertainer’,” continues McKee. “Some kids say, ‘I want to work as a beautician,’ and then some kids say, ‘I want to be a veterinarian, or a doctor.’ I think we should start with what they’re interested in or the risk of losing them is very high.”

McKee is probably right. “Student engagement peaks during elementary school, decreases through middle school and 10th grade, and plateaus through the rest of high school,” says Dr. Shane J. Lopez in a recently released report on the Gallup Student Poll, which investigates how America’s high school students are faring.

The next step is pairing students with mentors in the field of their dreams. Staff members research local businesses and call professionals who might be interested in teaching their trade to a young person. “I just got a random call one day. It was fantastic,” says Mike Daley, an animator with a graphic design company in San Francisco. “What I thought was great about it was it was very low impact. I think a lot of people have trouble finding time to help people in the community. With this program, they set you up with an apprentice who is interested in what you do. You just teach them what you know.”

Daley works with students who are interested in drawing in visual arts, and with a little bit of structure, he has seen the kids make connections between their drawing exercises and the kind of work that goes into professional animation. “There was one day where it snapped in his head,” says Daley of one of his students. “He was like, ‘Oh, we’re doing the same thing we were doing before but on a bigger scale, and it’s for Discovery Night’.”

Discovery Night is the event where each student presents a project they created while working with their mentor. It’s a moment where many students show a greatly increased sense of confidence, both in the subject matter and in themselves. In his essay on the Spark website, student Martin Juarez says, “Spark made me more confident, and helped me get over my fear of speaking in public.”

Dog care provider Marc Pearl taught his Spark students to train and care for some of his charges. He runs K9 Playtime in San Francisco, and in addition to making the kids take notes and retain some information, he made sure they got to see progress from their work. “They get a lot of joy out of the results, like getting the dog to sit,” says Pearl. “I think [Spark] gives a lot of confidence to these kids in the field that they’re interested in.”

Peter Coats, a structural engineer with Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger in San Francisco, noticed a similar change in his mentee, Dylan DeLeon. “I think Dylan gained a little more confidence in discussing what we do,” says Coats. “I think more than anything it’s a confidence process. It showed through when he did his presentation at Discovery Night. He did a fantastic job — he showed a lot of confidence, and he showed he had a lot of command for what we do.”

Spark’s development director Julie McGuire emphasizes this point to her friends and colleagues when she describes the program. Spark reaches kids at “what we know to be a critical age,” says McGuire. “They are really developing a sense of self at that point, and for students that we work with that really are at risk, their fundamental sense of self worth is being shaped.”

That seems to be the chemistry of Spark. Combine middle school kids with professional adults in a field that interests them, and the result is confidence. “It’s not a controversial idea,” says Balme. “Especially this year, when education budgets are getting slashed. All the workplaces are learning opportunities and we shouldn’t overlook that.”

With the Gallup Student Poll reporting that 50% of high school students in the United States feel stuck or discouraged, and that same amount feel not engaged or actively disengaged in school, ideas like Spark have come of age. Balme certainly hopes the idea will spread. “We’re trying to document and provide evidence” on the program, he says, adding, “Hopefully we’ll get a critical mass of students.”

Spark is opening up shop in Los Angeles in 2010, and will be training teachers on how to use the program. In California, “We are looking to be working with about 500 kids by 2013,” says development director McGuire.The goal is to spread the program nationally through a reproducible model, while maintaining their local work here in the Bay Area. “We don’t want to be everywhere ourselves, we want the idea to be everywhere,” explains Balme.

Interested in supporting Spark? If you can’t attend tonight’s Sugar Rush fundraiser (we’ll be there, come say hi!), you can visit, where you can sponsor an individual apprentice or find volunteer opportunities.

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