Laura, a 13-year old from a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, became so animated after her film-making apprenticeship that her teachers could hardly believe it was the same person. At the film company where she worked after-school, she was given real responsibility – to make a trailer for a children’s film that aired nationally. Treated as a mature member of a professional, fast-moving workplace, Laura began to connect the dots and understand what the adults had been saying about how school could open doors. Within months, her grades and motivation in school improved dramatically.
We’ve seen many examples like Laura’s through the work of organizations like Spark, an apprenticeship program for middle-school students from underserved neighborhoods. As the country seeks innovation in education, there’s an overlooked resource that exists in every community: the workplace.
While much of education policy rightly focuses on classrooms and teachers, we can’t forget about the extraordinary learning opportunity in our workplaces. A recent Gates Foundation study pointed out that 80% of high-school dropouts describe a lack of relevance in school as part of their path to dropping out. But when kids make the simple connection between what they learn and how it will help them as adults, amazing things can happen. We can all remember sitting in a classroom wondering why the lesson was important, and then later in life realizing why. Relevance is too often left out in the quest for more rigor in our schools.
Apprenticeships and other workplace learning opportunities are effective ways of providing relevance for student achievement. Apprenticeships are also a low-cost way to deliver educational experiences more tailored to an individual student’s interests. How many workplaces are full of interesting projects and people each day? Imagine if young people had greater access to these opportunities.
Spark has worked with every kind of professional workplace, from law firms to dental offices, architecture firms to government agencies. Great things happen when workplaces open their doors. The results are consistent – students involved in an apprenticeship improve their grades, attendance, and graduation rates. In a longitudinal analysis of Spark’s oldest students, 98% have graduated from high school or are on track to graduate, and even as early as middle-school they show statistically significant improvements in grades. Apprenticeships are also great for companies. Employees benefit from the experience of mentoring a young intern or apprentice while the company helps the local community develop a skilled workforce.
Laura’s film-making apprenticeship propelled her onto a different path, one of greater motivation and achievement. It’s already opening doors for her, and she has a mentor who performs the exact job she dreams of having one day. She now understands how school, including college, will make her dreams possible. Before her apprenticeship, it was easy for her, as it is for many kids, to assume that learning happens only in classrooms, and that learning isn’t much fun and doesn’t apply to real life. Laura knows differently now, and she’s developed the curiosity and motivation to drive her own learning forward.
Learning requires relevance and there are few better places than our own workplaces to show students the relevance of school. Better still for policy makers, there are a few better opportunities to inject new resources, at low cost, into our education system.
Guest blogger, Chris Balme, joined the Westly Foundation’s Executive Director, Dave Viotti, in writing this post. Chris is the co-founder and CEO of Spark (www.sparkprogram.org).
Blog coming soon.