Friday, September 30, 2016

Spark Expands High School Transition Program

This blog typically highlights Spark’s work related to students in the middle grades.  With this post, we are excited to expand that scope to include students in 9th grade and introduce our High School Transition (HST) program. Here Cristen Lain, Spark’s Director of Alumni Programming, shares more detail about the program and Spark’s research-based program evolution.


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 process

HST 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 path

In 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

When combined with Spark’s workplace-based mentorship program, HST adds the right additional support for students and families at the right time. Spark’s initial HST pilot in Chicago demonstrated 98% of our students explored and applied to a school that was not their neighborhood school.

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!

Spark’s High School Transition program:

✓     Builds on Spark’s mentorship 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.

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!