When I Grow Up, I Want To Be…  

Spark gives CPS students the chance to experience the benefits of a career

May 22, 2012

The current school dropout rate in PDF icon. Chicago is nearly 40 percent. In an attempt to lower that percentage, CPS has partnered with Spark, a nonprofit organization geared towards aiding 7th and 8th grade students to become motivated learners.  This is accomplished by encouraging adults to nurture the next generation through mentoring and volunteerism.


Fueled by the recent high school dropout crisis, Spark’s mission is “to provide life-changing apprenticeships to youth in underserved communities across the United States.” The apprenticeships help “spark” students to see their full potential if they stay in school. Because students are often cut off from professional workplaces that demonstrate the value of an education, many students make choices in middle school that lead directly to dropping out of high school.  Spark allows students to explore the school and career connection, they not only build skills for their academic success but realize the importance of their education. 


Six CPS schools have partnered with Spark Chicago, placing over 200 students in the program. Some job placements include companies such as the Morning Star, Careerbuilder.com and Kimpton Hotels.


After a CPS school has partnered with Spark, teachers and staff at the school then refer students who are struggling to stay engaged in the classroom to participate. The students who are chosen are interviewed and matched with a professional mentor, with whom they meet weekly during the semester at their apprenticeship workplace. Students involved in Spark prepare a culminating presentation and teach their new skills to peers and community members at the conclusion of the semester. 


In addition to the apprenticeship, students also complete Spark’s Leadership Class, which centers on building essential capabilities such as future planning, public speaking, financial literacy, networking and workplace etiquette.


Ryan Paul is a program manager at FREEFORM, a project design firm that became involved with Spark when an office neighbor mentioned that he completed an apprenticeship through Spark. The company wanted to give back to the community and felt inspired by Spark’s mission. Paul believes there are many benefits for students who participate in Spark.


“Students get to see the inner workings of industries and companies within a field that fits their strengths and interests,” said Paul. “They also get to work with professionals within these fields to learn more about a path that may fit their future life goals. It helps them to interact with adults and see what their hard work in school can yield if they stay on their path.”


Deshawn, a student at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, is currently an apprentice at FREEFORM. Paul has seen Deshawn embrace the idea of “design thinking” that the company has tried to instill in him. 


“As designers, we look at the things around us and try to figure out ways to make them better, easier to use or just more aesthetically appealing,” said Paul. “He has really started to catch on to this philosophy and has brought some interesting ideas to the table. We have also helped him to think in broader terms and ideas for his initial research.”


Deshawn became involved with Spark when he was in sixth grade and loves his current apprenticeship as a graphic designer (see photos of Deshawn hard at work in the photo gallery).


“Currently I am having an awesome time doing graphic design,” said Deshawn. “It’s cool because it combines technology with art and design so it gives me a chance to do two of my favorite things at the same time. This program has helped me dramatically because it gives me a chance to explore and discover different possibilities.”


Deshawn appreciates that his mentors teach him and treat him as if he was part of the company. He also believes that the program is essential to students.


“This program helps us get and stay on the right path,” Deshawn said.  “It is very important because it could determine a student’s future.”


Lakesa, a 7th grader at Mary Mapes Dodge Renaissance Academy, joined Spark at the end of her 6th grade year.


“I started my first apprenticeship in the fall of seventh grade and am now in my second apprenticeship this spring,” Lakesa said. “When I found out that Spark was coming to Dodge, I thought it was a great opportunity and wanted to join. I liked the idea of traveling into the city and experiencing new things.”


At her current apprenticeship, Lakesa works with Eric Neufeld at Scheck and Siress, the largest provider of orthotic and prosthetic services in the Chicago area.  Lakesa watches Neufeld interact with his patients and learns how to build prosthetic limbs. Together they are building a leg brace that Lakesa will share with her peers at the Discovery Night, Spark’s program-ending event (see photos of Lakesa’s work in the photo gallery).


Neufeld believes that Spark has been beneficial to Lakesa. “I was nervous at first to expose Lakesa to our patient population, which is mostly amputees and those with musculoskeletal disorders,” said Neufeld.  “She surprised me with her comfort around patients and her excitement to be part of the office as a whole. I hope the experience has helped her to identify some things that are interesting to her, and that perhaps might contribute to her choice of career down the line.”


Spark has had a major impact on Lakesa, as she said that the program has made her become a better person.  “I have gotten a chance to work with different people and learn about different jobs,” she said.  “It has made me realize how important it is to finish college and not drop out. By graduating from college I will be able to get my dream job.”


Lakesa dreams of being a pediatrician and one day opening her own clinic. She encourages other students to join Spark because it gives participants a look into what life is like after schooling.


“Spark gives you good practice with communicating with others and meeting new people with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” said Lakesa. “I wish that every 7th and 8th grade student in Chicago could experience Spark at least once!”


To learn more about Spark, click Opens in a new window icon. here. To get involved with Spark click Opens in a new window icon. here.

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