Sparking the Next Generation of Students and Mentors

November 18, 2014Alec Green

Spark is a national nonprofit that partners with schools and workplaces to match 7th and 8th graders with mentors working in career fields aligned with the students’ strengths and interests. Recently, Spark became a strategic partner of the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation and has been awarded a technology grant to build a new online platform to deliver enhanced student and mentor training.Kelly Dwyer

We caught up with Kelly Dwyer, Chief Knowledge Officer at Spark, to learn more about the inspiration for this unique mentoring program, some of the challenges they have faced in their first 10 years, and how they are using the Cornerstone platform to engage even more students and mentors across the country.


Tell us about Spark and the inspiration for the program.
Spark was created in 2004 in the San Francisco Bay Area after two entrepreneurs and educators, Chris Balme and Melia Dicker, noticed that their middle school students didn’t see a connection between what they did in school and their future goals.  Chris and Melia could see how student disengagement led students down a path of lower attendance, lower grades and eventually dropping out or graduating unprepared.  The big idea was to connect these same students to workplaces and adult role models right in their own communities. Students gain an opportunity to develop a relationship with someone who has a job they admire, get inspired to dream big for their own futures and make connections between the classroom and the ‘real world.’ In addition, adult mentors have a chance to work with an enthusiastic young person and gain some important leadership skills themselves.   

What were the early days like for the mentors and students? 
Spark’s program initially occurred in the summer months when students were paired with mentors in one apprenticeship.  We learned a great deal from Spark’s early years, especially about how to make great matches between mentors and students, and what kind of support our staff could give to mentors and students to help them have a great experience. Over the years, we’ve become even more sophisticated about tracking our students’ outcomes and gathering feedback from our mentors. As a result, we’ve made a few changes to our program, most notably that in our current model, students participate in two apprenticeships over an entire school year (rather than the summer), and we now give mentors weekly guidance on the specific skills they should talk about with their students, as well as more resources for how to create great Spark projects and organize student-friendly activities at their workplace.

What were some of the early successes and wins?
Feedback from the first cohorts of Spark students was very inspiring!  You can watch one of the first Spark students, Sonya, share her story on TV. Once we began tracking quantitative program outcomes, the data supported the anecdotal evidence of the success of Spark’s model. One of the most exciting things is that when we were able to collect report card data on a number of students, we found that students – especially those who came in just barely above a “C” average – increased their grades during their apprenticeships. This was really exciting because Spark is not a tutoring program.  This was proof that our focus on engagement and “soft skills” was critical to students’ success.

Early on, what were your long-term goals for the program?
We always had a vision that we could bring Spark apprenticeships to students outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.  The high school dropout rate was on the rise across the country, and we saw our students leaving the program better prepared for the important transition into high school.  Our vision was for apprenticeship learning to become a part of the middle school experience for more students – engaging them at the right time in their identity development and helping them get excited about learning.


What were some of the challenges you faced with the program?
Recruiting enough mentors each semester remains a challenge, but we have seen improvement by building partnerships with companies and working to recruit 20-50 mentors at each office location. As a national program, there are region-specific challenges, such as a lack of public transportation infrastructure, that each region works closely with staff, school-based and other partners to address. Cornerstone OnDemand remains a lead partner for Spark in helping to overcome these challenges by being the organization’s largest mentor source nationwide, as well as covering the cost of transportation for many Los Angeles students.

Additionally, as we grow the number of students we serve across the country, we not only need a proven model that withstands geographic expansion, we also need a program infrastructure that can help us to provide a consistently high quality experience for students and mentors without adding exponential costs.

Turning Point

What prompted you to consider building out an online training program?
After each program cycle, we collect feedback from everyone involved. We are committed to giving students and mentors the best experience possible!  We began to hear a consistent theme from mentors - they wanted more training and easier access to sample projects, session agendas, activities and more. As we were already operating in four regions across the country, and because we have limited resources, we needed a way to deliver these program upgrades without increasing staff or expenses. We began to see this as an opportunity to streamline how we deliver our program and actually improve quality at the same time.  

What experience did you or the organization have with online training before making this switch?
My first job out of college was as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, and one of the projects I worked on was bringing internet to a school so that teachers could access videos and see what American schools were like. This was in 2000, still in the earlier days of “online training,” but there were some great websites where teachers would post videos, share lesson plans, etc. The first time I developed content for online training was when I worked at another nonprofit, Citizen Schools, which also creates apprenticeship-learning experiences for students. At the time, the organization was facing a similar business problem: how do we work with a greater number of students and volunteers across the country while maintaining quality and keeping costs down? I helped to develop online trainings for initial onboarding, and saw firsthand how it could be critical in helping an organization grow to scale.


What was the organization's reaction when you were awarded the technology grant from Cornerstone?  How did your goals change?
It was an absolute game changer. We had been talking for many months about moving some elements of our program model and resources online, but the grant gave us the “how.” It enabled us to think even bigger and integrate features and functionality that we hadn’t originally conceptualized.  The grant made it possible for us to create more than a training platform.  The project became the start of a new program delivery infrastructure. One thing that is unique about our platform is that we are going to go beyond just training resources online. The platform will become the guide for how students and mentors work together to set goals and work on specific skills. Without this kind of technology, we would be relying on our staff to do that for caseloads of 75-100 students, which would never be possible.

What are your goals for the program once the platform is complete?
Through a phased pilot and rollout process, we will evaluate these program goals:

  • Provide mentors with structured resources for working with students each week
  • Help students set and achieve goals related to building specific 21st century skills with the help of their mentors and teachers
  • Allow a space for collaboration between mentors and other mentors, mentors and students and mentors and classroom teachers
  • Enable more middle school students across the country to demonstrate skills key to high school success and have a successful transition to high school

Where do you see this program in two years?
More and more education research shows that blended learning experiences (those that have a combination of online and in-person elements) are most effective for students when they are truly personalized. Our online platform will be a revolutionary way to bring together personalized learning, mentoring and 21st century skill building to support high school readiness and healthy student development. As we move forward, we hope to add more resources and diverse activities to the platform, offering students a range of options for building each skill – allowing them really to tailor their experience. We also hope that the platform will be able to use data about student performance and behavior to guide Spark students down a positive path.

Learn how your business can make a difference in the lives of middle-school students in your community at

Could your nonprofit benefit from a technology grant to engage your employees and volunteers?  Learn more about the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation's Strategic Partnership and Impact Grant programs.



About Alec Green

As Chief Marketing Evangelist, Alec Green is responsible for developing the overall marketing plan and strategy for the Foundation, executing all outbound communications, increasing visibility of the Foundation’s programs, and building engagement with our partners... more


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