Mentors and professional comedians Michael Kosta (far left) and Orin Moore (far right) with their John Adams Middle School students Anthony Lopez (center left) and Moises Gonzales (center right). (photo by Brandon Wise)

JAMS — A week ago Wednesday, Brian Depablo, Kevin Quintero and Peter Duran left the John Adams Middle School campus and walked into the halls of Activision, a game development company with offices in Santa Monica.

Armed with Activision dog tags and a nondisclosure agreement, the students were escorted to three separate wings of the building to learn the ins and outs of different parts of Activision’s business: computer repair, cover art and website design.

The boys, along with over 20 other JAMS students, participate in the Spark program, a youth empowerment project that places students in apprenticeships with professionals to inspire them to continue their education and pursue their dreams.

Students identify their “dream job,” and Spark staff hit the streets to find individuals and offices willing to mentor the children in the field of their choice, said Jahan Boulden, the program manager for Spark Los Angeles.

“Students are placed in everything from the Melisse Restaurant and The Yard as chefs, Activision for video game design, Spinmaster for toymaking and fashion design,” Boulden said.

Once a week for 10 weeks, the kids leave campus and go to their apprenticeships, where mentors teach them aspects of their field of interest. At the end of the program, the students will produce a final project, which they present science-fair style at an event called “Discovery Night.”

The apprenticeships dovetail with a leadership class that schools students in public speaking and interpersonal skills.

The goal is to connect the learning done in the classroom with its ultimate conclusion — the opportunity to make it in the field they dream of.

“We use this program to find inspiration and relevancy in day-to-day school work,” said Ben Allen, a program manager for Spark and board member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Allen helped bring the program to JAMS, which is the first non-charter school in the Los Angeles area to host Spark.

It’s also the only school to incorporate the leadership portion into the actual school day.

The biggest challenge in the program is not convincing students and teachers to take time out of their day, Boulden said, it’s finding the perfect apprenticeship for each kid.

“It’s student-driven, so we ask the students to fill out an interest form. We call them ‘career buckets,’ and they include different careers that fit under different categories,” Boulden said.

Staff then interview the students and take that information to the streets to find professionals that work in the field and would be willing to spend time mentoring the children.

Lee Rosen, founder of Premier Oncology, a cancer research and treatment center in Santa Monica, agreed to take in one JAMS student who told staff that he wanted to cure cancer.

“What a great opportunity to give back to the community and work with young people to encourage them to develop careers and dream big dreams,” Rosen said.

Premier Oncology has three components: cancer treatment, cancer research and a foundation that supports cancer patients through their treatment process, Rosen said.

Part of the mentoring program will be showing the student the multiplicity of ways that he can break into the field of cancer treatment, Rosen said.

“It’s about doctor and patient, but also about the pharmacist, nurse and business people who go into that process of curing cancer,” Rosen said.

While the middle-schoolers involved in the program won’t be turned into highly-trained professionals over the course of the program, they do pick up some practical knowledge.

Adan Hernandez went to work with computer repair business owner Scott Bly.

“We talked first about electricity, and he taught me how to read adapters,” Hernandez said.

Although it’s only week two of the program, the kids are excited about their apprenticeships.

“We were really lucky to get this opportunity,” Quintero said.


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