Friday, July 1, 2016

Guest Post: The Challenges of Summer Learning Loss

In 2015, Spark partnered with a number of organizations including the National Summer Learning Association, for the Expanded Learning Summit.  The gathering focused on how to make expanded learning the new normal for middle school students.  Here, Matthew Boulay, the founder of the National Summer Learning Association, explains “summer learning loss” and shares a few tips for keeping students engaged during the summer months.  Because Spark’s core mentoring program only operates during the school year, it’s helpful for mentors, educators and parents to realize the role they play in keeping students on track.
Summer learning loss occurs when students disengage from academics throughout June, July and August.  What might seem like a short academic break manifests into challenges for students, teachers and even schools. 

Summer Learning Gap in the Classroom
Teachers play a critical–yet often unrecognized–role in shaping expectations around summer learning. Some researchers describe teachers as “information brokers” who help parents shape their goals for summer learning and also identify resources in their community that can facilitate summer learning.

While summer learning loss may be new to many of us, it is not news to teachers who struggle with the effects at the start of each school year. In a 2013 survey of 500 teachers by the National Summer Learning Association:
  • Nearly 66 percent reported needing to devote 3-4 weeks to reviewing or re-teaching the same material at the beginning of the school year that their students had learned the previous spring.
  • Another 24 percent reported spending five weeks or more backtracking before deciding it was safe to proceed to new terrain.
This means that during a 40-week academic calendar, teachers have to spend more than 10 percent of it pulling their students back up to where they had been before summer slide.

The Ripple Effect of Summer Learning Loss
In most states and districts, schools have been judged on test scores under the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Because these tests are administered once a year, school year gains are mixed in with summer losses. Take the example of a student who gains 100 points during the school year but then loses 30 points during the summer. If the accountability system requires the student to gain 80 points but the net result after summer learning loss is only 70 points, then the student is categorized as underperforming. If there are too many students in this situation, the school is put on a watch list.

In other words, achievement gains made during the school year by both students and schools are undercut by losses that occur during the summer.

Helping Students Stay Engaged
As with many aspects of education and even childrearing, it takes a village.  Here are some tips for mentors, teachers and parents to keep students engaged during the summer months:
  • Explore home and community resources that might be available during the summer.
  • Make sure every child has a library card and consider transportation options to and from the local public library.
  • Encourage the school’s library to open during the summer months. Even if it is just for a few hours a day once a week, this allows kids to walk to their neighborhood school to get books on a regular basis.
  • Many schools subscribe to online learning programs during the school year. Programs like IXL, First in Math, Bedtime Math, RAZ Readers, and many more. These subscriptions are often 12 months long but teachers and parents are frequently unaware that they are available during the summer. Check to see if online learning programs are available during the summer and, if so, make sure students know about it.
  • Give reading lists. Some schools have parents sign “Summer Reading Contracts” to commit to supporting summer reading.
  • Use data to track summer learning at the school level or more simply with a reading log from their public library to keep track of the time spent reading during the summer.
Matthew Boulay is the founder of the National Summer Learning Association and the author of “Summers Matter: Ten Things Every Parent, Teacher and Principal Needs to Know About June, July, and August.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Guest Post: Mentor Scott Blair Shares His Spark Experience

Scott Blair is Vice President of Finance and Operations at Activision, a leading worldwide developer, publisher and distributor of interactive entertainment and leisure products. Scott and his colleague*, Dennis Durkin, CFO at the company, mentored Jesus, an 8th grader in Los Angeles. Below, Scott shares his Spark mentoring experience.  


This was my first student mentoring experience and while it was different from what I expected, it completely exceeded my expectations. 

I was expecting all the students to be super excitable, since Activision is a gaming company and so many kids love video games, but Jesus, my 14-year-old mentee, was actually pretty shy.  To get him excited, I needed to take an alternative approach to how I usually mentor a peer or colleague; I focused on helping, supporting and nurturing him, as opposed to providing constructive feedback the way I would in the work environment.

Our biggest challenge was making sure that Jesus was comfortable. We turned to video games, a common interest, to help break the ice. Each week we assigned ourselves homework to play five mobile games and write down what we liked and disliked about each one of them, how much time we played each game and if we spent any money (imagine playing games for homework, what a dream come true for a 14-year-old)! This icebreaking exercise eventually led to our project, how to make a video game, and became one of the projects key deliverables - Market Research. 

You don’t know what your mentee will take out of the experience, but I just took it one week at a time, putting all the building blocks in place and planning interactions with various colleagues he could also learn from – I wanted to make him feel special every week.

Jesus presenting his project with Scott (foreground)
Dennis (background) at Discovery Night
The project enabled us to focus on collaboration and although we didn’t know exactly how our project would end up, we built a solid project plan early in the process so we knew exactly what to do each week. That was something that I really hoped Jesus would take away from our conversations; that time management and planning is such an important skill and helps make everything easier, like making sure you plan to study for an exam at school, for example. I really wasn’t sure whether this was something Jesus would take away with him, but I was so pleased to read the thank you card he gave me at the end of his apprenticeship, as everything we had focused on with him was in there!

"The thing I liked about the apprenticeship was working with your company and experiencing the different things people do over there. I learned that it takes lots of time to accomplish something... I am thankful that you guys brought in many programmers to tell me what they do and how both of you care about me. With the things you showed me, in the future I will learn to manage my time. I will miss working with one of the top companies… and how you guys would encourage me to do well in school."

Discovery Night, Spark’s culminating project fair -and his presentation of our project to his teachers, family and friends - was just awesome. I was so proud - he did such a fantastic job! It was the most rewarding part of this experience. I did not know how it would go, but seeing him present his project with ease and seeing that he heard and incorporated all the feedback that we gave him during rehearsal was so special. There was a moment when we really connected; while practicing for Discovery Night I mentioned that he should pretend that he is presenting to the girl that he likes - from this point forward he took his practicing to the next level!

Scott (left) and Dennis (middle) with Jesus (right)
Participating in Spark was an incredibly rewarding experience. Most of us want to help others, but we are either too busy or can’t make it work for a number of other reasons. The fact that Spark comes to you, at your office, makes it an ideal solution. Not only is it very convenient for the mentors, but the students also benefit by getting exposure to an office environment, which is very impactful and motivating for them too.  I looked forward to these two hours every week – two hours of a different challenge; two hours making a special bond; and two hours that were the most rewarding time in my working week. I signed up to mentor because a colleague pulled me in, and now I am going to be one of the biggest Spark advocates around the office! Given how convenient and rewarding it is, everyone who has the opportunity to participate, should get involved. Helping someone who might not have all the opportunities that others do felt really special. 

*Spark strives to pair each student in a one-to-one mentoring relationship. Occasionally there's the need for a student to have more than one mentor due to volunteer workloads and/or travel schedules.  Thanks to Scott, Dennis and Activision for their support!  

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Benefits and Evolution of Volunteering

40,000. This is the number of hours Spark mentors will volunteer this year to help 1,000 students stay engaged and on track. It’s nearly the equivalent of five years of volunteer time!

It’s astounding. And there’s no shortage of gratitude here at Spark for the terrific mentors who bring our program to life.

This month Spark joins Points of Light and others in “celebrating service” during National Volunteer Month. It’s a time to recognize the millions of Americans who give their time and talent to help others. It’s also a time to highlight the meaningful impact giving back has on the volunteers themselves, and the growth in community service nationwide.

Good for Others, Good for You
We often showcase the benefits Spark’s workplace-based mentoring program brings to students in the middle grades. But, did you know mentors also benefit from volunteering?

  • 73% of Spark mentors have an increased motivation and appreciation for their job
  • 74% of Spark mentors believe that participating in the program has challenged them and helped them to develop new skills such as communication, leadership and collaboration
  • 82% of Spark mentors feel closer to their community after participating in Spark
And if these weren't enough, research indicates that those who volunteer are healthier and more likely to live longer!

The Next Generation of Volunteers
These benefits, when coupled with other initiatives including workplace-based community service, are helping to change the culture of volunteering. This year marks the seventh anniversary of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expands national service programs and is linked to increased volunteerism in the US.

Mr. Kennedy would be proud to know that the nation’s commitment to service appears to continue its upward trajectory as the next generation demonstrates significant enthusiasm for volunteering. Research shows Millennials are overwhelmingly opting to donate their time and personal skills. This is good news for service and good news for Spark. Only 30% of surveyed Millennial employees did not volunteer in 2014. A closer look at Spark mentors reinforces this point of engagement with 67% of our volunteer mentors ranging in age from 25 to 35.

In addition, the advent of more workplace-based community engagement efforts like Deloitte’s Impact Day is successfully increasing the service component of corporate engagement and philanthropy.

The Work Goes On
“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die.”

Indeed this famous quote from Edward M. Kennedy still rings true today. This is the time to acknowledge “the work” does not go on without the tremendous volunteers Spark and many other organizations are grateful to engage. When businesses encourage, generations embrace and adults recognize their responsibility for volunteering, many more social challenges become solvable.