learn / 2016

Spark LA Youth Mentorships

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Grants Challenge by Spark Program Inc

Let’s make LA the best place to learn by matching all of our city’s underserved middle schoolers with mentors at leading companies to support their success in high school and beyond.


Please describe your project proposal.

One out of every six LAUSD students drop out of high school – and of those who drop out, two thirds either don’t complete or get held back in 9th grade. By 2050, Spark wants every LA student to be ready for 9th grade with the support they need to thrive in high school and beyond. Today, a $100,000 investment from LA2050 will fuel Spark’s next step: matching 300 underserved middle schoolers with mentors from top companies for a year of career exploration, skill-building, and academic engagement.

Which of the learn metrics will your proposal impact?​

  • District-wide graduation rates
  • Student education pipeline
  • Suspension and expulsion rates
  • Truancy rates in elementary and middle schools

In what areas of Los Angeles will you be directly working?

  • Central LA
  • South LA
  • LAUSD

Describe in greater detail how your proposal will make LA the best place to learn?

In order to make LA the best place to learn, we have to engage students at the right moment. Every year, 1.2 million students drop out of high schools across the US. And two out of every three dropouts either don’t finish 9th grade or repeat it, only to drop out down the road. That makes middle school a critical transition, when as many as 60% of students become chronically disengaged, seeing no clear link between what they learn in school and what they see around them in the “real world.”

Spark forges that link. We believe that every student deserves to be engaged in their education and inspired to succeed in high school and beyond. So we target 7th and 8th graders from underserved communities who display early warning signs of disengagement and connect them to a powerful combination of mentoring, project-based learning, and a tailored academic curriculum.

We start by matching students with mentors at leading companies to explore new career opportunities through hands-on workplace mentorships. Their weekly visits culminate in a capstone project, driven by the student’s interests and the mentor’s expertise, like developing a videogame at a tech company. Back at school, students participate in Leadership Class, which reinforces these classroom-career connections and develops eight key life skills. Finally, Spark just launched our High School Transition initiative, supporting students and families through the high school selection and application process, with 300 8th graders at Bethune Middle School.

Mayra, a Bethune graduate, says that without Spark “I wouldn’t be able to see myself actually going to college. For me to have somebody in the role that I want to become… it gives you the guidelines in where you want to go with your life.” With her mentor Perry Wallack, co-founder and former CFO of Cornerstone OnDemand, Mayra explored potential careers in business and planned her academic and professional path to get there.

In her mentor’s view, the greatest impact may have been on her public speaking skills: “The ability to stand up in front of a group of people and convey a message,” says Perry, “that started with Mayra not having the confidence and the composure that you see today.” Ultimately, 83% of students meet or exceed expectations on skills like communication, 91% improve their school performance and 92% have graduated on time or are on track to do so.

Spark is also making LA the best place to connect by providing local companies with a turn-key corporate volunteerism program – literally delivering mentorship opportunities right to their office doors. Spark has a noticeable effect on employee engagement, with 71% of mentors saying our program increased their job satisfaction and 97% saying they’re proud their employer partners with Spark. The impact goes beyond students and mentors to the company itself: “It’s energizing and it’s cool,” says Perry Wallack. “It will help your company hire. It will absolutely help you retain.’

Please explain how you will define and measure success for your project.​

Success for Spark means keeping students:

  • engaged: motivated and invested in their education, seeing a clear path to their future
  • on track: attending school regularly, exhibiting positive behavior, and succeeding in coursework
  • ready: academically, socially, and emotionally prepared to navigate high school

We’ve established a data-sharing agreement with our partner schools to monitor the three warning signs of disengagement – grades, attendance, and behavior – as well as graduation. Spark also tracks the development of key skills and mindsets that set students up for success, including teamwork, positive attitude, and other social/emotional competencies. We conduct pre-, mid-, and post-program surveys of Spark students, mentors, and teachers to gauge student gains in growth mindset (based on Carol Dweck’s research), grit (based on Angela Duckworth’s research), classroom engagement (based on KIPP’s school character report card), and 21st-century skills (based on the work of MHA labs). Finally, we measure the quality of each student-mentor match through surveys of both students and mentors.

Based on Spark’s latest impact report:

  • 91% of students improve their grades, attendance, or classroom engagement during our program
  • 77% demonstrate positive academic mindsets (like self-efficacy)
  • 83% meet or exceed expectations on social/emotional skills (like teamwork)
  • 92% have graduated on time or are on track to do so (compared to only 68% of their peers)

How can the LA2050 community and other stakeholders help your proposal succeed?

  • Money
  • Volunteers
  • Publicity/awareness
  • Network/relationship support