When Maya Medina, a seventh-grader from East Palo Alto, met Lucy Shen, a 23-year-old software engineer at Intuit in Mountain View, they quickly bonded over an unlikely interest: K-pop, the South Korean music genre.
For Maya, it's more of an obsession, and she was happily surprised to find an adult who had already watched YouTube videos of her favorite band and with whom she could discuss her dreams of becoming a K-pop artist.
The two were brought together through Spark, a Bay Area nonprofit that pairs working professionals with low-income middle school students of color who are at risk of disengaging with school. During a semester-long mentorship program, the students visit local companies once a week to work on a project of their choice with a mentor with whom they have been carefully matched.
By allowing students to explore their interests with an adult, from K-pop to architecture to robotics, Spark works to expose the students to self-discovery, experiential learning and future career opportunities.
Redwood City middle-school teachers Chris Balme and Melia Dicker founded Spark in 2004 after becoming alarmed at the gap between some of their students and the companies and industries all around them that were nonetheless inaccessible.
"They saw their students being disengaged and not interested in learning, and more importantly, they saw students that had no connection to what the future held for them — what possibilities existed, what opportunities were right here in their backyard," said Jennifer Rider, Spark's executive director. "They came up with this idea to partner with companies and businesses in the area and show students what existed. That would change their thinking and engage them in their learning process."
Last year, the nonprofit launched its first district-wide partnership in the Bay Area with the Ravenswood City School District, where 50 students were served this year. The local volunteer mentors mostly come from tech companies — including Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Adobe, Paypal and Apple.
This year, Spark served 279 middle schoolers from cities including East Palo Alto, San Jose and Oakland. The nonprofit also works in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia and has the ambitious goal of serving 10,000 students annually by 2026.
Spark purposefully works with school districts where "students lack the social capital or opportunities," Rider said. Eighty-six percent of students Spark serves are low-income and 94 percent are students of color. The nonprofit's staff works with principals and teachers to identify middle school students who are showing signs of disengagement — absences from school, failing grades or behavioral issues — and tries to shift their trajectory before they get to high school, when they'll be at risk of dropping out.
"The path to dropping out starts far before ninth grade," Rider said.
While there are numerous support programs and dollars invested in early childhood education and in high school, middle school "becomes those forgotten years," she said.
Knowing that these students need support beyond middle school to succeed long-term, Spark offers workshops and guidance to help eighth-graders transition to high school. Once there, Spark students have access to a texting platform through which the nonprofit shares tips, study habits and other reminders. Spark also trains school counselors to support this particular demographic of students.
On a recent afternoon at Intuit in Mountain View, mentors and students sat together in a conference room, putting together final presentations for the projects they had worked on together for weeks. In one corner, Maya and Shen were gluing pictures of Maya's favorite K-pop group, the seven-member boy band BTS, to a large poster-board.
Spark works to match students and mentors with overlapping interests. A software engineer by trade, Shen is as obsessed with anime as Maya is with K-pop. She's an avid "YouTuber" with a channel devoted to musical covers and pursues multimedia projects as a hobby. She helped Maya practice and then film a dance cover of a BTS song, which Maya presented at a science-fair style event Spark held at the end of the semester.
While they bonded over their interests, the relationship went beyond "a surface-level, 'we like the same things' sort of relationship," Shen said.
Shen saw herself in Maya, a soft-spoken pre-teen who attends Cesar Chavez & Green Oaks Academy. As a middle school student in Fremont, Shen dreamed of becoming a songwriter, film director and producer. She received encouragement from adults at the time to pursue her dreams, but she didn't feel like anyone helped her take concrete steps toward doing so.
"It's easy to pay lip service to these dreams, but the harder part is taking that huge goal and breaking it down into digestible pieces and taking it one step at a time," Shen said. "I wanted to demonstrate to her what that process would be like so she could apply those skills and learnings to whatever she wants to do in the future."
Shen encouraged Maya to audition for a local K-pop company and to research the pros and cons of pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. Before their project, Maya had mostly sung by herself, in private, and was unaware that local K-pop groups exist.
Spark does have an impact, according to internal and external data. Close to 80 percent of Spark students show growth in classroom engagement at a time when average student engagement drops significantly and 92 percent are on track to graduate, compared to 68 percent of their peers. The nonprofit conducts surveys of teachers, students and mentors before, during and after the program. Spark also has access to school district data on behavior, attendance, grades and promotion rates. For the first time this year, the nonprofit has full access, so it will be able to track students through college, Rider said.
Harder to measure but obvious in all of the mentor-mentee pairs working at Intuit that afternoon were the bonds between people who might otherwise have nothing in common.
Student Lisbeth Morales and Intuit product manager Lucy Wagner built a robot together. Called a "doodle bot," the small robot is a paper cup with four Sharpie pens taped to its sides. Powered by a portable battery they built, the robot leaves abstract doodles in its wake as it moves across a piece of paper.
For Lisbeth, who dreams of potential careers in engineering, surgery or photography, the best part about Spark is "that we get to meet more people. You get to experience how adults work."
In another room, eighth-grader Francisco Rosales, who's interested in structural architecture, designed his dream house with Kenna Hasson, a designer at Intuit. Francisco drew blueprints and built different iterations of the house using a computer game, The Sims. Hasson brought Intuit's design philosophy — "go broad to go narrow" — to the process, documented via a flipbook-style presentation that shows the progression of the house design.
Shen, meanwhile, said she's seen Maya become more confident and self-assured over the course of the program.
"A lot of these dreams and lofty goals and ambitions are shadowed by a certain amount of anxiety and fear of failure. Maya especially had a lot of self-doubt about her ability to be a performer, her talents in those fields," she said. "I just really wanted her to learn that it's not about your talent. ... (Like) so many things in life, it's about how much work you put into it."
For Maya's part, she said she most appreciated Spark for the simple fact of "being able to be with someone that might understand you."