As a former math teacher and a leader in a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) selective enrollment high school’s Academic Center for 7th and 8th graders, I know the challenges and opportunities surrounding the tricky transition from the middle grades to high school. They’re part of what attracted me to Spark. Spark’s program for middle grade students from underserved communities is uniquely tailored and aligned with cognitive development at this age. After 10 years of successfully engaging students in workplace-based mentorships, it’s clear Spark has a model that works. However, what most interested me was Spark’s expansion -- supplementing the mentorship experience with additional support and resources for students through freshman year.
While working in Chicago’s schools, I saw firsthand the need for students to have a variety of support in the middle grades through the early high school years in order for them to stay on track for success. During that transition, it’s imperative for students to receive assistance with high school exploration, social emotional development, and accessible resources in their critical freshmen year. I can recall so many stories of my own former students who struggled with their first year in a new school simply because they weren’t prepared for the changes experienced in their new environment. Though very capable of attaining academic standards, many didn’t have the opportunity to develop critical skills like time-management, self-awareness or self-advocacy. Many of their difficulties could have been avoided with the right preparation.
One of my favorite students, Ray*, recently reached out to me after getting into a little trouble at school. Ray is a well-rounded student who is well liked by friends and teachers. He told me he’d been struggling with his grades for quite a while and rather than seeking help, he had been covering up his problems. He wasn’t able to properly problem solve. He didn’t know how to self-advocate and was embarrassed that he needed help. There are so many students like Ray who would benefit from opportunities to learn and develop these skills so they can better navigate complicated transitions. What if Ray was taught that learning is a process, and it’s okay to make mistakes? What if he knew earlier that it was time to reach out to an adult for help? Students like Ray are part of why I am excited to help Spark build and launch its High School Transition (HST) program.
In-school opportunities keep students engaged and help them navigate the high school selection processHST does not replace Spark’s mentorship program for students in the middle grades. Instead, it extends Spark’s programming by providing a guided pathway paved with additional resources, opportunities and tools. Eighth grade is a time for students to get excited about going to high school and to prepare for success during that time. It is also a time for students and families to be educated consumers in making high school choices. Spark’s HST program provides its students with the customized “Select Your High School” Tool. Guided by Spark staff, students use data around academic quality, distance and personal interests to find the best high school for them. Skills workshops help students understand what to expect in high school and how to apply what they have learned to various high school scenarios. Students are also given the chance to participate in peer panels and summer opportunities. Like Ray, so many students would benefit from exposure to additional resources like these to stay on track for success in academics and in life.
We received great feedback from students and educators during our pilot sessions. One of the counselors who tested the Select Your High School Tool told us, “The database you guys created so the kids can compare their schools side-by-side is absolutely AWESOME!” We are excited to roll out our second version of the Select Your High School Tool with new features and improvements for our students.
Skill-building resources help students remain on a positive pathIn 9th grade, Spark continues to support and encourage students through online character building workshops and by offering an abundance of resources and opportunities via digital communications to keep students on a positive path. This programming is progressive, building upon 7th and 8th grade supports. It also extends the pipeline of support for students through partnerships with peer organizations in the high school
A comprehensive approach to an important academic transition
And, this fall Spark will expand its HST services to students and families in Los Angeles, more than quadrupling its reach to serve 730 students in two regions!
✓ Builds on Spark’s mentorship program
Spark’s High School Transition program:
✓ Helps 8th graders find the right high school for them
✓ Engages parents in the high school transition process
✓ Prepares students for high school through SEL workshops
✓ Provides relevant resources to Alumni students in the 9th grade
*Student name changed to protect privacy
By Cristen Lain, Director of Alumni Programming, Spark
Cristen's passion for education and her diverse background led her to Spark. Before joining the organization, she led a Chicago Public High School Academic Center for seventh and eighth grade students accepted into a unique selective enrollment high school program. She previously taught high school math for five years and also worked many years as a consultant. Cristen is excited to use her experiences in developing programs for students in the middle grades and designing curriculum to create a program for Spark's alumni students. Cristen has a M.Ed. in Secondary Education with an endorsement in Middle School Education from DePaul University and a B.S. in Mathematics, with Minors in Statistics in Actuarial Science from Loyola University.