Packard Giving Students a Spark Outside of the Classroom

It's a question teachers across the country hear every day. "What's the point? When am I going to use this in real life?" That's a question Redwood City-based nonprofit Spark is trying to help students answer. But instead of providing classroom instruction, the nonprofit places at-risk students in real-world work environments, giving them a chance to apprentice at local businesses.  


Spark students — who come from neighborhoods with dropout rates of 40 percent or more — gain hands-on experience in a variety of industries. Past Spark students have interned in aviation programs at the Palo Alto Airport, computer engineering programs at Cisco Systems, and business programs at Salesforce, and the work experience students are gaining is translating into academic success. A study of the program found that 98% of alumni have graduated or are on track to graduate from high school, and truancy rates for participants are also significantly lower.

Not to mention, Spark as an organization is also starting to gain momentum. The nonprofit was the recipient of the 2012 Make It Better Philanthropy Award for "Most Inspiring Mission," and in their eight years, more than 2,700 students gained real-world experiences through the program.

Since 2007, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has provided support for the educational organization, helping Spark expand and grow from their beginnings in Redwood City to six cities nationally, including San Francisco and Oakland. Since 2007, the foundation has provided $160,000 from their local grantmaking to Spark. (See David and Lucile Packard Foundation: Bay Area Grants).

"There's an enormous untapped educational resource waiting just outside the classroom — our workplaces — and we've been thrilled to see how many professionals take us up on the chance to have an apprentice," Spark co-founder Chris Balme said in a story on the foundation's website.

As for Spark, the program is proving to be a great educational experience for students. Spark uses volunteers throughout the Bay Area who meet with their mentee once a week for eight to 10 weeks. During apprenticeships, students learn what their mentors do at work and gain insights into what a future career in the field might be like. Students also gain hands-on experience working under their mentors.

Each year, the Packard Foundation provides up to $14 million to local organizations and nonprofits that fit into their six issue areas, which include the arts, children and youth programs, conservation and science projects, food and shelter, and population and reproductive health services. The foundation also focuses on programs that serve the five counties that surround their headquarters in Los Altos. (Read Packard Foundation vice president, Chris DeCardy's IP profile).

In the foundation's youth and and children area, program officers focus on nonprofits that offer programming, provide academic enrichment and serve middle school students throughout the school year.