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Sparking kids’ path to high school

By JD Scalzo, Udemy Experience Coordinator

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Alejandra and her Spark mentee

Being a learning company means different things depending on the context. At Udemy, one of our foundational values is encouraging learning among our own team as well as the instructor and student community who teach and take courses in our marketplace. But we also strive to cultivate and support the love of learning at any age among the general public.

A prime example of this value in action is our continued partnership with Spark, a nonprofit that helps underserved youth become motivated learners and connected community members through mentorships with working professionals. The organization’s goals are to reduce high school dropout rates and set participating students up for ongoing success.

Here’s how Spark works. On “match night,” mentors are paired with students based on similar interests and shared project goals. Together, they develop action plans for what they’ll work on during the program. Creativity and innovation are the name of the game, as students and mentors collaborate on cool projects like making a movie trailer, a dance video, a restaurant concept, and a mobile app specifically designed for middle schoolers. Of this year’s projects, 92% involved one or more STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, math).

I first encountered Spark when I signed up to be a mentor last fall and later served as Udemy’s corporate liaison during the spring 2016 semester. Then, at the end of the term, I was named 2016 Impact Champion! Flattered and awestruck, I didn’t really know what that meant until Spark shared some data around Udemy’s contributions. Our accomplishments include:

  • More than 760 hours of volunteering by 31 mentors since spring 2015, when our partnership began
  • Mentored 19 students from Roosevelt Middle School and 13 students from MLK Jr. Middle School, both of which belong to the SF Unified School District
Student Sonte with mentors DQ and Lauren

Student Sonte with mentors DQ and Lauren

The success of the Udemy-Spark partnership extends far beyond the projects themselves. The bond between students and mentors is powerful and inspiring on both sides. Take the example of Sonte, an 8th grader from Roosevelt Middle School, who teamed up with Udemy employees and first-time mentors David Quintanilla and Lauren Rosenfeld. “I admire my mentors because they were nice,” Sonte told Spark. “I could trust them, and they helped me learn a lot.” David and Lauren, meanwhile, found the experience so worthwhile, they worked with another student from MLK Jr. Middle School in the spring. I was really moved by how compassionate and involved they were with their students.  

It’s quite a unique bond, as I know from my own stint as a mentor. I was paired up with a quiet, charming 7th grader who wanted to improve her public speaking skills. Together, we decided she’d have an easier time on the speaking part if she chose a topic she was already passionate about. She chose to talk about her cat, Cupid, and what it’s like to be a cat owner. She shared the story of how she got Cupid and presented her research on different types of cats. I even got to take her to KitTea, a cat café here in San Francisco (trust me, it’s real!). It was interesting and somewhat heartbreaking to peek into the psyche of a middle-school student who thought she was so bad at speaking, she would get nervous and even cry when she had to present to her class. Over the course of 10 weeks, she eventually realized she only needed to apply patience, courage, and preparation in order to be a very good speaker. It’s a skill she’ll keep practicing and one that will definitely be to her advantage in the future.

Spark is a young but ambitious organization. They’re now collecting data and getting feedback from students and mentors to further develop the program, but their results so far have already made a big impact. According to Spark, 91% of their students notably improve their classroom engagement, attendance, and grades, while 90% of them complete 8th grade and are on track for high school graduation.

Helping make Spark students successful is just one way Udemy is proud to be a learning company. We had so much fun working with these middle-school kids and can’t wait for our next community engagement events.

Kristin of Udemy with her Spark student

Kristin of Udemy with her Spark student

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