October 7, 2014  /   Discovery Night

Sparking Interest

A personal account of Spark CEO Jason Cascarino’s mentorship with Chicago student Isiah — 
I’m guessing it was just jitters. I got a call about an hour before Isiah and my mentorship was about to start saying he was not feeling well and may not come. This is not atypical. Leaving their school and home communities, often for the first time, can generate some anxiety among students. Indeed, while Isiah says he has been to downtown Chicago before – even toured the top of the Sears Tower – we know that many young people from the south and west sides of Chicago have never been to the Loop. They have never been in a building with a revolving door or an elevator. They have never seen Lake Michigan, one of the great natural beauties of the mid-west, not even a mile away from where many of our students live.
Exposing young people to different people, communities, indeed “worlds” in the metaphorical sense is a core component of the Spark model. Our intent is never to make any value judgment on one world over another, simply that closing the opportunity gap requires exposing young people, regardless of where they are from, to something different. Minimally, it broadens their point of view, and optimally it provides greater access to more options ahead of them in education and life.

Another practical benefit to venturing beyond their home communities, students have to navigate public transportation – an important skill for many working professionals. Spark Students travel in multiples – in the case at Gregory Academy, about 30 all together. They are guided and chaperoned by our staff and parent or community volunteers. They are checked and verified at multiple points along the way. The system is quite robust and reassuring, for mentors, school administrators, parents, and students alike, for the sake of safety.
Isiah rallied, aided by his mother no doubt, and he arrived to a warm welcome at the Spark office. The first mentorship session centers on mentors like me getting to know our students more, and also giving them an idea for the company, the job that we do, and the people we work with. I gave Isiah a tour of our office – all 2,000 cozy square feet of it – and introduced him to my colleagues.

As we went along, I found myself still calibrating my words and descriptions to his level of experience and understanding, not wanting to dumb down but also not wanting him to feel lost. For example, I introduced Isiah to Spark’s COO and head of fundraising. To explain what it is that they do for the organization, I asked him how much he thought it costs to run an organization like Spark. After a few seconds of contemplation, he speculated: “A hundred thousand dollars.” On top of my raised eyebrow, I rejoined: “Try three point six million.” Over the next few silent seconds, the expression on his face slowly shifted from surprise to curiosity to excitement as he took this in. We then talked about how we need people who can find that much money for us, getting people to donate, and we also need people to count the money, keep it safe, and pay the bills.

Each apprenticeship session includes a “skill of the week.” These are crucial interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies that young people need to develop in order to be successful in school, in careers, and in life. Indeed, recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences and the University of Chicago among many other research reports have increasingly shown these skills to be as essential as academics.  This week, we focused on networking. I can tell Isiah was already rather adept at networking. And he knew it too. I got him talking about how he meets new people and develops friendships. It’s pretty clear Isiah is a connector. Infectiously likeable, genuine and fun, people are drawn to him.
Our Results: Spark Students Improve Crucial Skills

I told him that a lot of the networking we do in jobs like mine is done in restaurants and coffee shops, as well as at events. Clearly, professionals like to eat and drink. Or rather, we like to get out of the office, if you really want the truth. So, after seeking permission from his mother, I took Isiah over to a café in the Sears Tower across the street for our own little networking meeting, so he could get a taste of the experience, as it were.

I could tell he was enamored with the idea. The tea shop is in the airy west side atrium of the building, equipped with comfy chairs. Bright digital displays showcase the drinks on offer, which he selected after some interplay with the counter clerk. He kept mentioning how cool this all was. He said he wanted to come downtown more often. He asked if he could do Spark more than once a week. I confess not knowing if his excitement was driven by the charm of the place or of our engaging conversation, or possibly the number of packets of sugar he added to his drink, which I’m pretty sure exceeded five.

The mentorship lasts eight full sessions at the workplace, followed by Discovery Night back at the school. Share Your Spark (Formerly Discovery Night) is when all the students and their mentors display the projects they worked on over the course of their mentorship. I didn’t expect us to decide upon our project in our first session. But, after talking with Isiah, I got a clear sense of what he was interested in – something that centered on communication, engaging with people, collaborating. So, we bandied a few ideas and rested on one that has some promise. Next week, we’ll map it out. And then the real work of the mentorship will begin.

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