Spark program offers apprenticeships to students, tries to expand in Los Angeles

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Brian Watt

Luz Moreno debuts her film at SPARK's Discovery Night, after her apprenticeship with 20th Century Fox.

The Spark program creates apprenticeships for middle-school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Tonight at 5:30, at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, Spark students and their mentors plan to display the results of their work during the last nine weeks.

A lot of teachers can identify with Chris Balme. "I was teaching 7th grade, and my students kept asking 'why are we learning this, and what’s the point of this kind of learning?'" says Balme. "And I really wanted them to see for themselves that it matters and that school is a vehicle for anywhere they want to go. But to do that, they have to get out of school and actually see how learning is actually applied in the real world."

That’s why, seven years ago, Chris Balme cofounded Spark. The program creates one-on-one apprenticeships for middle school students, trying to connect the kids to jobs they’ve been dreaming about – firefighters, architects, costume designers, veterinarians.

At the end of the nine-week apprenticeships, there’s what’s called a "Discovery Night" – a show-and-tell open house for the kids and their mentors.

That’s where I met 13-year old Luz Moreno last year, a student at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. She apprenticed with 20th Century Fox in the marketing department, and wound up making a trailer for her fantasy movie, "Zombie Killer of Camino Nuevo."

Before she made the "Zombie Killer" trailer, which shows her battling zombies with her martial arts skills, she worked on sample trailers for the movie "Marmaduke."

"To do this type of job, you have to be very patient and thoughtful about what you’re doing," says Luz.

Luz told me she lives in South Los Angeles with her extended family. Her dad was cutting clothes for a garment maker, and her mom was cleaning homes for a living. Luz’s mentor at Fox was Jonathan Helfgot.

Spark started in the Bay area and got to Los Angeles last year, with apprenticeships for 13 students. Cofounder Chris Balme says by the end of this year, he wants to be serving at least 200 students here.

"Thirty percent of American youth drop out of school," says Balme. "We have to do something about that and the problem really can be addressed in middle school. If you wait until high school, it’s too late for a lot of students to make a big enough transition. But in middle school, it’s really an amazing opportunity to give students a vision of where their future can be."

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