Spark and Center for Supportive Schools share a focus on creating opportunity

This blog post was written by Daniel F. Oscar, President & CEO of Center for Supportive Schools (CSS), and Jason Cascarino, CEO of Spark, in reaction to our recently released policy plan, “Our Opportunity Nation: A Plan to Fulfill America’s Dream as an Opportunity Nation.”

A continuum of efforts is required to maximize the chances of success among Opportunity Youth as they progress in their learning and development. As members of Opportunity Nation’s Coalition, the Center for Supportive Schools (CSS) and Spark greatly support the comprehensive and expansive Opportunity Millennium Goals proposed in Our Opportunity Nation: A Plan to Fulfill America’s Dream as an Opportunity Nation.

The persistent opportunity gap continues to have an unyielding grip on the futures of children in high-need communities across the United States. As a result, far too many don’t reach their full potential in school, career, and life. Opportunity Nation’s bold plan highlights proven strategies for narrowing the gap, and their Coalition brings together best-in-class organizations to put these strategies to work. Spark and CSS leverage the power of mentoring and social and emotional learning (SEL) to address the special needs of youth during critical transition points in their K-12 experience. That is why we joined forces to help realize Opportunity Nation’s vision of reengaging one million Opportunity Youth each year through 2025 and support Opportunity Nation’s work to fulfill America’s dream.

Together, Spark and CSS share a focus on the great opportunity to guide trajectories during the critical young adolescent period, when students transition to middle school and to high school. The transition to middle or to high school can destabilize many students.[1] By leveraging the power of mentoring and SEL, and by creating opportunities that focus on key transition years, programs like ours are emphasizing a support continuum for students and are helping schools transform periods of heightened vulnerability into significant opportunities to prevent student disengagement and foster graduation. Among the many approaches detailed in Our Opportunity Nation, we believe the following efforts have special resonance for adolescent youth during critical transition periods:

Increase mentoring. Young people, especially those from underserved communities, often lack access to a diverse network of caring adults and peers to guide them on a positive path through school, work, and life. As illustrated in the landmark report, The Mentoring Effect,[2] one in three young people overall and 37% of at-risk youth, report they never had an adult mentor while they were growing up. Approximately 16 million youth will reach age 19 without a mentor.

CSS and Spark help students in our country’s highest-need communities benefit from positive relationships with caring adults and peers. Our evidence-based models mobilize and strengthen the efforts of both internal mentors (such as school-based adults and peer mentors) and external mentors (such as leaders from the business community) to provide a multi-layered web of supports for students. Spark integrates mentoring with other key “on-ramps” like career exploration and interest-driven, project-based learning. CSS taps into the power of peer influence to create nurturing school environments where young people receive continuous support from well-trained older peer mentors. Together, we help young people gain value from personal and positive relationships with invested, caring adults or older peers; become more engaged in school and improve their performance; and do so while also building vital social capital to help them throughout their lives.

Expand and integrate social and emotional learning with academic development. Social and emotional learning “teaches the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically.”[3] A mounting body of evidence clearly indicates that, compared to students who do not participate in such programs, students who receive SEL programming academically outperform their peers, get better grades, and graduate at higher rates.[4]

Peer group interactions and school culture and climate have consistently been identified as highly influential on student learning,[5] and CSS harnesses them to improve academic behaviors and mindset, perseverance, self-regulation, and a wide variety of other SEL skills. Spark’s mentoring program also helps students build social-emotional skills and academic mindsets through a curriculum and activities tailor-made for students’ cognitive development during the middle grades.

In partnership with schools, our and similar programs can round out the learning experience for young people so they develop the broad package of academic, social and emotional skills needed to be successful long term.

[1] Elias, M. J. (2001). Middle School Transition: It’s Harder Than You Think: Making the Transition to Middle School Successful; Middle Matters, Winter 2001, 1-2. Retrieved from

[2]Mentor. (2014). The mentoring effect: Young people’s perspectives on the outcomes and availability of mentoring. Retrieved from

[3] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2007). Background of social and emotional learning. Retrieved on September 13, 2011 from

[4] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2007). Background of social and emotional learning. Retrieved on September 13, 2011 from

[5] Wang, M. C., Haertel, G. D., & Walberg, H. J. (1997). What do we know: Widely implemented school improvement programs. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education.

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