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.

Tony Avelar/Staff
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.

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.

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.

The public school was in bad shape, with a high dropout rate. While walking back to Wharton, Balme realized he was "seeing all these resources, these skyscrapers, and yet these kids had no idea what was right there all around them."

That's when the puzzle pieces clicked together. "The problem and the solution were right next to each other," he says.

In 2004, he and Melia Dicker founded Spark. For the first two years neither took a salary; all the funds they raised went into the program. Today Spark has a staff of 16 and a $1.1 million annual budget.

Apprenticeships are "not rocket science," says Holly Depatie, Spark board chair. But other mentoring programs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, while pairing youngsters with adults, don't specifically target learning about jobs.

So far, Spark has created more than 700 apprenticeships in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. In 2011 the program will begin operating in Chicago's public schools. "We're at the end of the runway, and there is some major lift coming under our wings," Ms. Depatie says.

In 2008 Balme was awarded a fellowship from the Draper Richards Foundation, which funds social entrepreneurs. After researching Spark, Draper portfolio director Anne Marie Burgoyne became convinced that not only did the program have value, but that Balme had the skills and commitment to make it work – and grow.

"Chris was stellar on many levels, ruthless in focus, and with a strong sense of mission," Ms. Burgoyne says.

Balme's demeanor is both button-down proper and disarmingly open. He talks with emotion about the generosity he encountered in his own life as a child, when a family friend took in him, his sister, and his mother after his parents split up and the family was in dire financial straits.

It's early to judge Spark's success, but so far 98 percent of its apprentices have gone on to college or are on track to go.

The experience for the volunteer mentors is often life-changing, too.

Spark "gave me a new purpose, something that I really care about," says Erik Newton, a San Francisco attorney who worked with a seventh-grade girl from one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Back at the Horace Mann orientation, a shy and somewhat withdrawn student, Marchel Smith, found her confidence grow as the night wore on. As part of a Spark exercise, she was asked what superpower she most wished she had. "Walking through walls," she answered.

That's exactly what she may be about to do, courtesy of Chris Balme and Spark.

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