Youth Organization Leverages Emergency Relief Dollars to Spark Creative Thinking in Spokane

Two Level Up students operate a snack machine they prototyped and built themselves.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started impacting Spark Central’s programming, their staff used some of the same problem-solving skills that they help students develop to continue meeting the needs of those students.

The online programming that the Spokane community-based organization tried to implement during the 2020–21 school year wasn’t having the intended effects, said Wilson Faust, Program Director at Spark Central. In response, the organization found a way to safely bring back in-person activities at their site in the West Central neighborhood.

“We dove right into figuring out how, even if we were all staying six feet apart, we could make sure we were forming positive relationships and meaningful relationships between the students we were working with and the volunteers we were bringing in,” Faust said.

That work is key for the success of the Level Up program, which provides access to project-based learning opportunities in content areas ranging from playwriting to robotics for students in grades 3–6, regardless of their economic background. Volunteers also work with students on developing confidence in their own creative abilities, as well as building resilience when they encounter barriers or make mistakes.

“We want to see them expand their ideas for what is possible for them in the future,” Faust said.

The Level Up program has been able to add staff and expand its programming with support from competitive grants provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for community-based organizations (CBOs) from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. Most significantly, Spark Central embedded its Level Up program at the two elementary schools it served starting in the 2021–22 school year.

“Some families were, just with the work schedules, struggling to transport their kids,” said Brooke Matson, Executive Director of Spark Central. “So it just works easier if kids are going to school anyway, that we meet them there.”

Spark Central has worked to support the West Central neighborhood since its inception. Matson said there are limited resources there, particularly for families.

“It’s been around for a very long time, but it is historically under-resourced due to redlining and just a lack of city resources being allocated there,” Matson said. “It traditionally has been high poverty and a very diverse neighborhood.”

Moving the Level Up programs to the elementary schools that the participating students attend has proven a successful way to support both the students and their families.

“School attendance has improved because they’re excited to be at this program and not miss it,” Matson said.

The Level Up program offers a wide variety of activities and learning experiences for its students. These have included coding, robotics, Minecraft, painting, digital arts, sewing, and writing and producing a newspaper called the West Central Express.

The students have also been able to apply what they’re learning to solve real-world problems. Because Spark Central has been experiencing a volunteer shortage, the volunteers they do have end up juggling multiple responsibilities at once, including handing out snacks. In response, the Level Up students built a snack-dispensing machine to help.

“They designed a prototype, and then actually built it, and it worked,” Matson said.

The Level Up program plans to implement project-based learning opportunities on a larger scale in the coming school year. One elementary school they serve will be focused on creating the newspaper, while the other will pursue projects in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“We think that that’s going to enable us to recruit volunteers who can get in and form strong relationships with the kids more quickly, because they’ll already have some kind of interest they’re expecting to share together,” Faust said.

Those connections help to keep everyone engaged — including volunteers and staff members.

“Everywhere has a community, but building that community intentionally and in a positive way, I think that’s something that we’ve always worked really hard on, and as a result, done really well at,” Faust said.

This story is the second in a four-part series that features community-based organizations across Washington and the projects and programs they have been able to implement with support from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and American Rescue Plan funds.

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