In Real Life Blog Series: Mentoring in the Middle Grades

Guest Author: Jason Cascarino, Chief Executive Officer, Spark
March 17th, 2016
Posted In: Education, In Real Life

Throughout March, we are focusing on the role education plays In Real Life. Visit MENTOR’s blog to read weekly blog posts on the unique ways education intersects with mentoring, including program stories, real life mentoring features, and announcements on initiatives supporting our efforts to building a strong foundation for all young people to reach their potential.

Years ago, Andrew was an eighth grader in Los Angeles and admittedly felt unprepared to move on to high school. He didn’t feel engaged or motivated in school, and he was falling behind. That year, he was paired with a mentor in the Spark program. Spark partners with schools in disadvantaged communities across the country to offer youth like Andrew a yearlong opportunity to work one-on-one with a professional in a workplace environment. Andrew was interested in drawing and his mentor, Marco, worked at Abramson Teiger Architects in Los Angeles. Marco taught Andrew about computer modeling and drawing programs, giving the young man an inspiring real world learning experience he could take back to the classroom.

Andrew credits Spark and his mentor for getting him more invested in his own learning and preparing him to achieve greater academic success, eventually helping him achieve a 4.0 GPA. Earlier this year, as a senior in high school, Andrew learned that he was accepted early decision to Brown University! For him, it all stemmed from a caring adult who caught him just at the right time: middle school.

An Inflection Point

14361631954_7388bf0d29_o (3) (1)The words “middle school” can conjure some interesting memories that may make us squirm, blush or shake our heads. No doubt it was likely an awkward time as we transitioned from childhood to young adulthood. We may first recall the outwardly physical changes that occurred during this time, but interestingly, some of the biggest changes actually occurred in our brains. As such, it’s a time when mentoring can have an especially big impact.

We now know that during early adolescence, changes in the brain provide a brief but important window of opportunity to develop critical cognitive abilities. Young people are in a heightened stage of identify formation – figuring out who they are and their place in the world. They are influenced more by relationships in and out of school than they are by, say, content in books and lectures. And they are more seriously imagining themselves as adults and, in the best cases, setting goals for their futures.

We often pay attention to the alarms at this stage:

  • By age 16 the neurological window closes, making it more difficult for young people to form positive behaviors such as decision-making, morality and motivation. [2]
  • As many as 60% of students become “chronically disengaged” by the high school years. [1]
  • Students who don’t reach high thresholds of GPA and attendance have low probabilities of graduating high school on time. [3]

These may be true. But we ought to concern ourselves equally with the notion that the middle grades are a time to seize.

At Spark, we’ve found that connecting middle school students with engaging mentors in exciting workplaces where they have the opportunity to relate to caring adults and work on projects they are interested in, is a successful learning formula for the young adolescent brain. Young people get to learn by doing and creating things they care about – speaking to their identity. They get to collaborate with adults – building meaningful relationships and social capital. And they get a glimpse of what they could be one day – being exposed to professional environments, from big companies to public agencies and universities and nonprofits.

We also know from The Mentoring Effect that young people with mentors “report setting higher educational goals and are more likely to attend college than those without mentors.” This makes mentoring an ideal intervention for 7th and 8th graders who can benefit from the skills and social capital they need to stay engaged and on track in their schooling.

Reimagining the Middle School Experience

22560860096_bc2476384f_o (1)Combining structured mentoring with project-based learning, skill building and career exploration is a powerful approach tailor-made to young adolescents. Each student in the middle grades should have the opportunity to discover who they can become. And all adults have a role to play in equipping them for that journey.

Spark is eager to partner with the Association for Middle Level Education in celebrating Middle Level Education Month in March. This month reminds us to reflect on the middle grades and recognize the educators, parents and mentors who support these students through a challenging transition. Students’ experiences during this formative period have a profound effect on their ability to stay on track and transition successfully to high school and beyond.

While we may not remember middle school as a particularly glamorous era in our personal history, we know that our experiences during this time deeply shape who we become. If you too believe that the middle grades are a critical time in the lives of young people and that mentoring is a necessary ingredient in a reimagined middle school experience, spread the word about Middle Level Education Month and give back through mentoring.  Having one more caring adult like Marco in the life of a young person like Andrew during 7th or 8th grade can be the difference between disengaging from, falling behind in or even dropping out of school and succeeding in education, career and life.

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Jason Cascarino, Spark’s Chief Executive Officer since 2014, has dedicated his career to growing high-impact education nonprofits.


[1] Klem and Connell, “Relationships Matter: Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement.” Journal of School Health, Volume 74, Issue 7, pages 262-273, September 2004. 
[2] National Institute of Mental Health, 
[3] CCSR Middle Grade Report


9 million young people in America are in need of a trusted adult in their lives to guide them in moments big and small. Join the In Real Life movement and become an advocate, make a donation or become a volunteer.

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