Spark is a national nonprofit organization that re-engages underserved seventh and eighth grade students, keeping them on track and ready for success in high school and beyond through workplace-based apprenticeships that uniquely combine mentoring, project-based learning, skill building and career exploration.

223 W. Jackson
Suite 520
Chicago, IL 60606

Countries Served
United States



Over 20% of all American youth–and over 50% of youth in many disadvantaged communities–drop out of high school. Evidence shows that, for most students at risk, the problem begins in middle school. This is when as many as 60% of students become chronically disengaged–showing signs of diminishing school performance, attendance, and classroom behavior–and enter high school unprepared academically, socially, and emotionally. Effective engagement during middle school years can have powerful, positive consequences on retention and graduation rates in high school.

Programs Offered

Spark targets high-need schools and districts in the Bay Area (including San Francisco, Oakland, Redwood City), Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Additional schools are being added every year.

Spark Labs: The Spark experience begins during the fall semester of 7th grade with Spark Labs. Through this program, students are exposed to a variety of different career paths and work environments by participating in on-site workshops hosted by Spark’s corporate partners. The goal is to help students develop a broader understanding of industries and careers of all shapes and sizes by visiting different offices and working with new people throughout the semester. Employee volunteers at each corporate partner site guide students through structured group activities that build skills and help students understand how their interests and abilities relate to different workplaces and positions.

Workplace-Based Mentorships: After Spark Labs, 7th graders complete 13-week mentorships during the spring semester. Spark works with students to identify areas of personal interest and possible career paths and then uses this information to match each one with a mentor. All mentors are working professional volunteers trained and screened by Spark. Students visit their mentors in the workplace once a week after school, where they participate in hands-on learning activities that build social-emotional skills like networking, teamwork, and problem solving. Mentors provide direct guidance and collaborate with students to complete a project related to their interests.

At school, students attend regular “Leadership Classes” designed to reinforce and build on interactions during the Spark Labs program and subsequent mentorship. The curriculum links positive mentor worksite experiences with skills learned in school (for example, the practical application of math and writing). Spark staff work with mentors and teachers to ensure effective coordination of in-class and apprenticeship components, using timely examples and lessons. At the conclusion of the mentorship, students present their project in a validating, celebratory Discovery Night assembly before mentors, family members, school leadership, peers, and the broader community.

High School Pathways and Ninth Grade Support: Using workshops and an interactive, online tool, Spark guides 8th grade students and their families through selecting the right high school. After successfully navigating the high school application process, 9th graders are supported through a texting platform to help them stay on track.

Historical Results

Since 2004, Spark has served nearly 10,000 students. Spark’s longitudinal alumni data show that participants are graduating or are on track to graduate high school at 92%. These rates are dramatically higher than the ~68% rates of the demographic cohort of the Sparks students.

In the 2018-19 school year, Spark served over 2,200 students in 26 schools across the country through the dedication of 1,100 mentors and in partnership with 102 corporate partners. Spark defines and measures impact around three central pillars: Individual Skills, Community Connections, and Performance & Engagement. Some highlights from Spark’s outcome data for the 2018-2019 school year are:

  • 72% grew in critical competencies for successful classroom engagement as measured by their teachers, including enthusiasm for learning and trying hard despite setbacks, at a time when average student engagement declines
  • 87% agreed that Spark helped them figure out what kind of job or career they want to pursue as an adult

Use Of Funds

  • $1,000 supports one workplace-based mentorship
  • $5,000 supports student transportation needs
  • $10,000 supports Spark Labs for a class of 25 students
  • $25,000 supports mentorships for a class of 25 students

Path to Credibility

Focusing Philanthropy team members meet regularly with the Spark CEO and other key national and regional staff. These face-to-face visits—coupled with ongoing monitoring of Spark’s strategic and growth plans, budgeting, and performance tracking data—have resulted in further insight into and confidence regarding the Spark program.

Members of the Focusing Philanthropy team also regularly visit Spark program sites, including workplace mentoring sessions, mentor-mentee match days, in-school “Leadership classes,” and Discovery Night graduation celebrations.

Focusing Philanthropy inquired about Spark among other nonprofit organizations that address the challenge of high school dropout rates. Those with knowledge of Spark were uniformly positive about its programs, leadership, and impact.

Spark co-founder, former CEO, and current board member, Chris Balme, is an Ashoka Fellow. This is a highly competitive honor awarded to a small number of leaders of smaller nonprofit organizations each year worldwide. The fact of being so named, and the resulting support from the Ashoka organization and other Fellows, is a positive indicator about institutional and leadership strength. Several of the organizations Focusing Philanthropy showcases are led or founded by Ashoka Fellows.

In 2017, Jeanette Castellanos joined Spark as CEO, with a passion for social change and a proven record in fundraising, program development, and advocacy. In her most recent role as Executive Director of Citizen Schools Illinois, Jeanette strengthened programs and expanded partnerships aimed at closing the achievement and opportunity gaps. Prior to her time with Citizen Schools, Jeanette served in progressive leadership roles at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.

Focusing Philanthropy and Spark successfully engaged in a multi-year campaign for the program’s Growth and Impact Fund, which supported Spark’s goal to double the number of students served annually (from 1,000 to 2,000) over the span of 2014 – 2017.

The founders of Focusing Philanthropy are donors to Spark.

→ Read Program Site Visit Report

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