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Difference Maker

Matching kids with adults who live their dream

Chris Balme puts together at-risk teens and business-world mentors who show them a brighter future.

By Paul Van Slambrouck/ Correspondent / November 8, 2010

Chris Balme, cofounder of the Spark program, has help create more than 700 internship opportunities for middle school students in San Francisco and Los Angeles over the past six years. A Chicago program is planned for 2011.

Tony Avelar/Staff


San Francisco

To the pumping beat of Aretha Franklin, and with pizza-laden paper plates poised precariously on their laps, families sit in the crowd at the assembly hall of Horace Mann Middle School here.

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They are waiting. They are looking slightly anxious.

It's not graduation day – though it is something akin. The seventh- and eighth-graders here are at a pivotal time in their young lives, when school dropout problems can begin, experts say.

Recognizing the threat, these families are participating in a one-of-a-kind program called Spark, which aims to boost graduation rates through one-on-one apprenticeships.

The meeting will pair students with volunteer apprentice teachers in what Spark cofounder Chris Balme calls a "beautiful and amazingly awkward moment." Lawyers, hair stylists, and software developers will meet up with students who have selected their occupations as the ones they would most like to learn about.

The adult volunteers march in, find their apprentices, and begin a relationship that will likely transform both their students and themselves.

The wide brown eyes, half-smile, and cocked head of student Maria Ramos suggest she is both dazzled and puzzled by Leetta Klink, a hairdresser who has come from the other side of San Francisco to meet her. "I've always pushed her to go for it," says Maria's mother, Claudia, as she sits back to watch the encounter unfold.

Spark apprenticeships offer weekly, semester-long, one-on-one workplace experiences that bring economically disadvantaged teens into contact with a world they have probably only imagined.

Nationally, some 30 percent of US high school students drop out. In some states graduation rates are so dismal that high schools are known as "dropout factories," according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

While improved curricula, better teaching, and modern equipment may be part of the solution, "you have to have the relevance, as well as the rigor," says Mr. Balme of his six-year-old Spark program.

By "relevance," he means learning experiences that have direct relevance to both the world students live in now and the one they might like to live in as adults.

The gulf between those worlds – one of limited expectations and hardship, the other of success and prosperity – hit Balme one day when he was volunteering as a science teacher at a public school in Philadelphia. He was also studying at the prestigious Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania.