Nationally, some 30 percent of US high school students drop out. In some states graduation rates are so dismal that high schools are known as "dropout factories," according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
While improved curricula, better teaching, and modern equipment may be part of the solution, "you have to have the relevance, as well as the rigor," says Mr. Balme of his six-year-old Spark program.
By "relevance," he means learning experiences that have direct relevance to both the world students live in now and the one they might like to live in as adults.
The gulf between those worlds – one of limited expectations and hardship, the other of success and prosperity – hit Balme one day when he was volunteering as a science teacher at a public school in Philadelphia. He was also studying at the prestigious Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania.
The public school was in bad shape, with a high dropout rate. While walking back to Wharton, Balme realized he was "seeing all these resources, these skyscrapers, and yet these kids had no idea what was right there all around them."
That's when the puzzle pieces clicked together. "The problem and the solution were right next to each other," he says.
In 2004, he and Melia Dicker founded Spark. For the first two years neither took a salary; all the funds they raised went into the program. Today Spark has a staff of 16 and a $1.1 million annual budget.
Apprenticeships are "not rocket science," says Holly Depatie, Spark board chair. But other mentoring programs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, while pairing youngsters with adults, don't specifically target learning about jobs.