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When kids get to middle school, they start asking their teachers: Why am I learning this? What’s the point? For two years in the Los Angeles area, the SPARK program has responded to those questions through apprenticeships for low-income middle school students who are struggling in school. The program needs more volunteer mentors for its young apprentices.
"It’s a one-on-one mentorship with a student interested in doing a job they’re excited about and we match that student with a volunteer who’s doing that job," says program coordinator Sean Diaz.
The mentors and apprentices spend two hours a week together for 8 weeks. At the end, the students present a project at “Discovery Night.” At a recent "Discovery Night" at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica, 7th grader Adrian talked about his apprenticeship with the Santa Monica Police Department.
"I watch a lot of 'CSI,' so I wanted to see what it’s like in real life," Adrian said. He wore a blue glove and stood in front of a project booth titled "CSI: Santa Monica." The booth featured photos and mock evidence from a crime scene. "I found out that the dust used to get the fingerprints is really really messy," Adrian explained, adding "when we were done, the gloves were all black. Instead of blue, they turned black. "
His fellow apprentice and John Adams schoolmate Josh chimed in: "What I learned was how hard it is to be police officer," Josh said. "Even if you go four years to college, you still have to go to police academy and train more." Nevertheless, Josh still wants to join a police force someday, although he hopes to serve in the Army first. Santa Monica Police Officer Erika Aklufi stood by with a quiet smile.
"For me as a mentor, it’s always nice to be able to share the love of my job with younger people," Aklufi said. "Because it reminds me of why I really, really enjoy what I do."
SPARK needs a lot more volunteers like Erika Aklufi. The program started in the Los Angeles area in the spring of 2010 with 15 apprenticeships. This year, it offered 235. Next year, SPARK expects to work with 500 students, so it needs more mentors. Program coordinator Sean Diaz is looking for them. He said the toughest sell is not always the time commitment, but convincing someone that his or her job is interesting enough.
"Fifty percent of the time, you’ll have people saying 'I don’t understand why a kid would want to do my job,' but I’ve just been blown away by the interests that our students are bringing, " Diaz explained. "Not just for careers that might seem exciting to us like police officer or fireman or architect, but a lot of our students are doing business apprenticeships, where they’re actually making business plans for their own ideas."
Culver City architecture firm Abramson Teiger has taken on four SPARK apprentices, and Project Architect MarcoMarraccini said each apprentice designed a structure of their dreams: two dreamhouses, a restaurant, a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. One apprentice, Marraccini remembered, began with almost no interest in architecture, but that changed quickly.
"Within a few weeks of working with him two hours a week, he was totally sold on being an architect," Marraccini said. "He loved the balance of the creative with the technical and really picked up on drawing incredibly well. He would spend hours at home on his own on these drawings and then bring them into the office, and I was just blown away. "
He believes other volunteer mentors from other professions could enjoy similar experiences.
"Even if you feel like your profession is dull, once you break it down to its basic components, you actually can appreciate it more for yourself as you're teaching it to the children," Marraccini insisted. "They may actually teach you something about your own profession."