Successful Career-Focused Mentoring for Middle School Students

SEPTEMBER 29, 2016
When mentoring relationships illuminate career possibilities, they foster even brighter futures.

"I learned what I want to be when I get older and how I can be successful in life."

Zane, a student in Philadelphia, shared this sentiment after spending structured time with a mentor in Spark’s workplace-based mentoring program for students in the middle grades. Many students like Zane are expanding their horizons by traveling to businesses and institutions outside their neighborhoods to learn about a wide range of careers from caring adult mentors.

Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful, positive effects on youth. This school year, in total, Spark will serve roughly 1,700 students like Zane and introduce many of them to mentors who will reinforce 21st century skills and growth mindsets while offering career exposure in industries spanning science, technology, government, media, health entertainment, engineering, culinary arts, architecture, business and more!

The impact of Spark’s workplace-based mentoring is the result of the organization’s commitment to data-driven decision making to adapt the program to both the challenges and opportunities facing students in the middle grades. Spark’s mentorship program was established in 2004 to help students connect future career possibilities with academics. After more than a decade of field practice and thousands of mentorships, Spark’s workplace-based mentoring model continues to demonstrate proven impact. Ninety-one percent of students in Spark’s workplace-based mentoring programs improve classroom engagement, attendance or grades and 83% meet or exceed expectations in academic and social-emotional skills. Longer-term, 92% of Spark students have graduated or are on track to graduate on time compared to an average of 68% in districts Spark serves.

We are eager to share our successes and best practices to help other mentoring organizations achieve similar results with career-focused mentoring for youth. These three pillars reflect best practices from our work:

Pillar One: Tailored Programming

Successful career-focused mentoring for students in the middle grades requires content and programming customized for the cognitive and social-emotional needs at this age:

1. Structured One-to-One Interaction with a Caring Adult

For 10 weeks in the fall and spring, Spark mentors follow an agenda to guide the two-hour meetings.

2. Skill-Building

Each week mentors lead students through activities focused on a “skill of the week” such as networking or creativity. Mentors use their professional experiences to connect skills with workplace activities and job responsibilities, then link those activities back to students’ interests and the importance of doing well in school.

3. Hands-On Project Creation

Mentors guide students in creating a project related to a career interest. Students create business plans, design sneakers, build a 3D printer, develop an advertising campaign or write a blog. No matter the project, students and mentors benefit from weekly progress on a shared goal that incorporates skills, interests and career exploration.

Feedback from mentors has driven Spark to customize content for professionals volunteering during the workday. One mentor, Claudia, shared, “I'm very happy to be working with Qamar. Sharing my day-to-day [experiences] and how they relate to his personal interests is a great way to start thinking about a future career. He has been inquisitive, patient, and responsible in building his website.” Perry Wallack, founder and CFO of Cornerstone OnDemand and a Spark mentor, rallied his colleagues by saying, “People say they’re too busy but there’s no reason people can’t do this.”

Pillar Two: Strong Corporate/Institutional Partnerships

Workplace-based mentoring opportunities resonate with adults in most professions when there’s a desire to meet consistently and supportively with a young person and share career experiences. Because Spark’s program requires mentors to volunteer their time during the workday, partnerships are forged at the corporate or organizational level to bring as many students as possible from a school to each workplace for one-to-one mentoring. In fostering these relationships, mentoring programs should:

  • Clearly outline the unique benefits for corporate partners
  • Request the largest volunteer pool possible in each workplace location to maximize staffing efficiency
  • Develop a contract or agreement outlining the responsibilities of the company and the organization
  • Determine a clear point of contact or ambassador at each company
  • Find a way to capture feedback from mentors and company decision-makers

Emphasizing the value mentoring brings to the workplace can help offset initial concerns from corporate partners. According to a report from A Billion + Change, a Points of Light initiative, mentoring is the top form of skills-based volunteering, and a 2015 report from Ernst & Young and MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership lists “fostering employee engagement, satisfaction and retention” as a key reason for companies to engage in youth mentoring. One Spark mentor, the co-founder and CEO of a tech company in Philadelphia said, “You will not find a single person in the entire office who is not smiling when the students arrive. We are all happy to have [the students] there and they brighten up our days,” adding workplace culture enhancement to the list of mentoring benefits. Like many other mentoring organizations, Spark has found that volunteers who mentor during the workday also benefit from their experience. Sixty-three percent of mentors build a deeper connection with their peers and 75% develop new skills.

Pillar Three: Shared Learning

During each of their 10-week mentoring sessions, Spark students create a project with their mentors. They are coached by mentors and Spark staff to “teach back” what they’ve learned at the end of each session. Students may give a presentation to mentors and their mentor’s colleagues, pitch their business idea to family members, and/or engage their peers in the teach-back process. Putting students in the driver’s seat gives young people an opportunity to share what they have learned, demonstrate expertise, practice public speaking, and take pride in their work. In many ways, the opportunity to share what they have learned throughout the mentorship brings the experience full circle and also helps mentors feel a sense of accomplishment and impact. “Using my professional skills and time to help inspire youth to achieve their career aspirations is enormously rewarding,” said Jennifer, a Spark mentor in the architecture and design field.

The career-focused mentoring model leaves a lasting impact on the lives of students, volunteer mentors and the companies supporting the mentorships. The benefits of this type of mentoring are often particularly appealing to potential school and company partners alike, positioning service providers to deliver unique experiences with measurable impact.

Kathleen S. Caliento earned her master's degree summa cum laude and her PhD in science education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She graduated with her B.S. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Prior to Spark Kathleen served as Chief Program Officer at Project Exploration and Director of Program Investments at The Chicago Public Education Fund.

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