Chris Balme
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   United States

Chris Balme

Spark Program
Chris Balme is reducing school drop-out rates by turning workplaces into classrooms where disengaged middle school students receive personalized apprenticeships in their dream jobs and a reason to…
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This description of Chris Balme's work was prepared when Chris Balme was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Chris Balme is reducing school drop-out rates by turning workplaces into classrooms where disengaged middle school students receive personalized apprenticeships in their dream jobs and a reason to re-engage in their school experience.

The New Idea

By the time young people reach high school, many of those who have not thrived in the school environment quickly make the choice to leave it. Chris thus determined that middle school was a critical time to give young people the opportunity to dream about their futures, and he saw that opportunity in the office buildings surrounding city schools. Every working person’s desk could become an engaging learning environment for a middle school student at risk of dropping out of school. Chris founded Spark to build this bridge between schools and their surrounding communities. Spark matches middle school students with apprentice teachers in the student’s careers of choice and supports that experience with a curriculum that helps students make the connection between exciting apprenticeships and their classroom learning.

Spark finds the students most disengaged and thus most at risk of dropping out and asks them what they dream of doing in life. Spark then makes their dreams seem achievable by sending them into workplaces for one-on-one mentorship with accomplished professionals. Buttressed by an adaptable school curriculum, the experience helps make school learning relevant to the students. In the process, it engages adults in the education of their communities’ young people and transforms workplaces into youth-friendly educational environments, increasing workplace morale in the process.

The Problem

Approximately a third of U.S. high school students do not graduate in four years, many dropping out of school for good. Drop-out rates are even higher among minority populations. Among the reasons cited by students for leaving school, disengagement ranks among the highest. Nearly half of those students who drop out of school say they were not interested in their classes. Additionally, the majority of these students did not have positive parental involvement in their education.

Most efforts to address the high school drop-out crisis target high school students themselves. But by then, it may be too late. Students begin to make critical choices about their futures already in middle school. Many of the existing programs also focus solely on content and quality of education and afterschool programming, neglecting the issues of attitude and motivation at the heart of the problem. The problem suggests a need for individualized attention to students, but schools and educational programs are too resource-constrained to personalize their approach.

Work-based learning has developed as a way to connect students with real-world learning opportunities that take them outside of the classroom to experience career opportunities. However, these programs are almost exclusively provided to high school students and tend to have a vocational, job-training objective. These programs thus direct students toward career but often fail to help students make the connection between the job experience and their school experience. Without a fundamental shift in attitude toward school, students remain at risk of dropping out.

By targeting middle school students, focusing on student motivation, and tapping the underutilized resource of workplaces to personalize the experience, Spark has created an effective and scalable model that pre-empts the problem of students dropping out at the high school level.

The Strategy

The Spark model aims to provide middle school students at greatest risk of dropping out with a personalized apprenticeship that gives them a fun and different learning experience in a new environment, allows them to develop tangible skills in an area of interest, and helps them see the relevance of their classroom learning. At the same time, it builds community accountability for the education of young people and shifts adult perceptions of “lost cause” kids.

The strategy has five component parts: Identifying students, identifying apprentice teachers, managing apprenticeships, administering the curriculum, and conducting follow-up and referral. This division allows Spark to strategically and flexibly adapt and delegate different aspects of the model for ease of spread and scale.

Intrinsic to Spark’s approach is a redefining of student potential. Whereas many youth programs look for those students who have demonstrated potential in school, Spark instead finds the potential in those who have not. Therefore, Spark’s intervention begins by having schools identify the “trouble” students, those most disengaged from the classroom experience. Then, unlike other organizations that channel students into a pre-determined program, Spark lets each student determine the specific content for him or herself. Spark staff assess whether the students can benefit from the program generally, but they let each one tell them what he or she would love to do someday.

Spark then invites accomplished professionals to play a unique volunteer role within the context of their work lives. Unlike mentoring programs that ask adults to play an amorphous role in the lives of disadvantaged youth, Spark approaches a potential volunteer with a discrete opportunity to use his or her specific skills to impact the life of a particular student who dreams of doing what that professional does. By approaching adults in their professional lives, Spark accesses an untapped volunteer market that other mentoring programs may not reach. Chris began by identifying individual apprentice teachers as the demand was created by student requests. To facilitate program growth, Spark is now building an online database of professionals willing to teach their professions to students. This database of profiles will allow students to browse and find careers they may not have otherwise considered, and although screening of mentors will remain in Spark’s hands for the time being, the database will also allow schools to take over the apprentice-teacher matching process.

While some programs bring professionals into the classroom to teach their skills, Spark takes the students out of the classroom environment that has failed to engage them, sending them into the new and exciting work environments of the apprentice teachers. For 2 to 3 hours a week over the course of a semester or summer, the student works alongside the apprentice teacher in his or her workplace on a tangible project or skill. At the end of the apprenticeship, the student then presents that project or skill to parents, teachers, and peers. When the students “teach back” what they have learned to do, they show the adults in their lives that they are not hopeless. Furthermore, their peers learn about new potential careers and become excited about the Spark opportunity, building demand for the program.

The apprenticeship experience itself is often transformative for both student and apprentice teacher. Spark has an 85 percent retention rate among its students, most of the attrition being due to students moving or other family issues. Typically, 100 percent of the participating students report not only enjoying the experience but also experiencing growth in such areas as self-confidence, public speaking, teamwork, communication, and meeting new people. For the apprentice teachers, Spark’s volunteer return rate is 92 percent, much higher than the national volunteer retention average of 65 percent. Apprentice teachers repeatedly report increased insight into their profession and increased self-confidence. Furthermore, the impact of the experience extends to their colleagues: Apprentice teachers report increased morale and team spirit in their offices. Spark’s volunteer supply grows as colleagues of the apprentice teachers are inspired to take on their own apprentices.

While the apprenticeship gives students a fun and interesting experience, it only lasts for a few months, the objective being to create a spark that re-engages students in their school experience, keeping them from dropping out. As such, it is critical to Spark’s success that students complete the program having clearly connected the apprenticeship experience to their school learning. Some of this connection happens organically as the students come across school concepts in their apprenticeships, such as a chef apprentice encountering fractions. But to reinforce this connection, during the semester or summer, the students participate in regular workshops through which Spark’s leadership curriculum helps them understand the critical role that school plays in making their personal goals achievable. The curriculum pushes the students to develop three critical life skills: Self-awareness, community-awareness, and resourcefulness.

Although Spark’s aim is to provide a short-term, targeted experience, Chris understands that the students need some continued support to make the most of that experience. Spark assists its students to make connections to other resources that will help them continue to internalize the learning. If they can benefit from another apprenticeship, Spark allows them to repeat the program. Spark also provides Alumni Leadership Coaching, which helps students refresh their Spark learning and connects them to other program resources in high school.

To spread the program, Spark is both replicating in other geographic areas and experimenting with models for scaling nationally. Spark currently operates in San Francisco and Redwood City, California, and is opening a new program in Los Angeles. By replicating in new cities, Chris hopes to demonstrate that the model is transferable. Spark also plans to gradually transfer more of the program, such as implementation of the curriculum and identification of apprentice teachers, to the schools themselves, allowing for more adaptability and faster spread. At the same time, Spark is developing a consulting capacity that will allow it to seed the idea in other locations around the country and ultimately serve as coordinator and trainer of a national network of middle school apprenticeship program implementers. Chris intends to leverage this position to push policy reform for the incorporation of apprenticeships into middle school curriculum nationwide.

The Person

Chris adopted a love of teaching from his parents, who were freelance musicians and taught music to supplement their income. But growing up, Chris dreamt of becoming a successful business entrepreneur and was often creating little businesses. As a middle school student, he combined teaching with his entrepreneurial ambitions, starting a business teaching elderly people how to use computers.

Chris did not enjoy school but focused intensely on it, understanding the significance of doing well to achieving his career dreams. After years of working hard in school to maintain good grades, Chris studied abroad in Paris for a semester, where he suddenly found himself with very little work to do. He started wandering the streets of Paris, meeting people, and his perspective on life changed. Chris lost interest in his business dreams, and after graduating from college, he decided to pursue his other teaching interest.

But after a year part-time teaching in an urban middle school, where behavior was such a problem that students were required to cross their arms as they walked through the hallways, Chris felt he could do more for these students from outside the classroom. After spending a year researching school programs and finding very little for middle school students, he decided to take on the disengagement he had seen among the students in his classroom. He and his co-founder looked around at the office buildings surrounding city schools and thought that if they could pry open those doors and break disengaged students and often equally disengaged adults out of their school and work silos, they could revitalize the middle school experience and perhaps transform communities in the process.

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