Sparking Student Success

The following article excerpt was originally published in Issue 1 of Impact Magazine, Penn’s first student-run publication dedicated to social impact.

Wharton Social Impact Initiative contributes a column for each issue, highlighting ways the broader Penn community demonstrates the commitment to social impact.

Sandi Hunt, a Spark mentor and Wharton Social Impact Initiative senior manager, works on a project with student apprentices.

Wednesdays are special. If you look around, you may see a crop of very young students – 12 and 13 year olds – entering buildings across Penn’s campus.  These Henry C. Lea School or Mastery Charter students are part of the Spark program and they’re on campus to meet with their mentors. This semester, a few of them are coming to our office.

Founded by Wharton alum Chris Balme (C’ 03, W ’03) Spark connects 7th and 8th graders with professionals working in careers of interest to each child – nursing, journalism, information technology, hotel management, and more.

Spark’s goal is to give these young students a glimpse of the world of work – a glimpse of the world they can enter and the jobs they can have if they stay in school.

Most of the Spark apprentices come from neighborhoods with extremely high dropout rates. The Spark students who come to campus are here to meet with their mentors, to learn about the workplace, and to get an understanding of how what they learn in school is relevant for careers that they have only vaguely imagined.

WSII is supporting Spark in the effort to connect local 7th and 8th graders with Penn mentors at Wharton and across the Penn community. And that need couldn’t be greater: in Philadelphia, a staggering 34 percent of students drop out of high school.

According to April 2013 reports by nonprofit news service The Notebook, that number rises well above 50 percent in low-income areas of the city. These hotspots dot the map in neighborhoods such as Kensington, Point Breeze, Walnut Hill, and North Philadelphia. Across the entire district only 64 percent of high school students graduate on time.

What’s fueling this trend?

“We can’t point to any one indicator.  There are a number of things,” explains Lisa Nutter, president of Philadelphia Academies and Philadelphia’s First Lady, in an interview with WHYY’s RadioTimes. “Kids talk about being disconnected from adults in the school, being disengaged from the things they’re learning in school…There’s a combination of things that kids say pushed them out of school… Some are academic, but some have to deal with poor relationships within schools.”

Spark apprentices work on a project at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative office.
Spark apprentices work on a project at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative office.

Spark and Wharton

Middle school can be tough.  This is a time when students begin to develop a sense of their own potential, and when they need guidance to understand how to develop a path to a career.  This is where Spark comes in.

Spark’s spring 2013 pilot program connected 67 students with mentors from across the city, including many Penn graduate students and staff. This fall, Spark commemorated its first full year in Philadelphia, marking the milestone by expanding to more than twice as many schools. The program is now at Henry C. Lea School, John Barry Promise Academy, Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker Campus, Morton McMichael School, Roberto Clemente Promise Academy, William Dick School and Antonia Pantoja  Charter School.

In late September, Spark students – referred to as apprentices – gathered at their respective schools for Match Night, where students and their parents were introduced to their mentors. This is where the program really begins to kick off.

For the next eight weeks, apprentices trek to their mentors’ offices to spend the afternoon engaging in career-related projects, activities, and hands-on learning. The apprentices build upon their professional workspace experience with an in-school curriculum to reinforce the lessons and experience gained outside of the classroom.

For some young apprentices, a lesson may be as simple as practicing a firm handshake and looking someone in the eyes. For other apprentices, these workplace lessons open their eyes to pathways previously unheard of. Like pursuing a college degree. Or a career based on their favorite subject. Or understanding how their interests align to different careers. The Spark team likes to tell the story of a student who was interested in becoming a rap star—and the mentorship that taught him how to build an excel sheet to track the expenses that comes with stardom.

“When we tell the students about the importance of planning, it may go in one ear and out the other. Now they’ll be learning it from professionals in their field of interest,” says Dr. Bell-Chiles, principal of Henry C. Lea Elementary School.

To read the full article, and discover more about how this program is helping under-served youth, pick up a copy of the November 2013 issue of IMPACT Magazine, or read the digital version online.