Nestled at the heart of St. James Academy’s academic wing, the Spark Center for Academics redefines the concept of academic support. It’s more than a learning space; it’s a thriving hub where students, peer mentors, and teachers converge to exchange knowledge, learn together, and empower one another.

The journey started three years ago as school leaders dove into academic achievement data trends. Looking specifically at the areas of English and Math, we noted High School Placement Test scores had been steadily decreasing over the past six years. The school’s Kansas Assessment paralleled that decline over the same time frame. The number of students on education plans was rising. And our ACT scores were beginning to feel the effects of all of this.

These numbers spoke to us. St. James Academy needed a program to meet these kids where they are at, bridge their learning gaps, and help move the academic needle in the right direction. We wanted a program that was flexible and accessible, so students could find help from a trusted person on a schedule that worked. And it had to be a mission fit.

So we started researching academic centers, specifically local high school “math hubs” sponsored by the Brown Family Foundation of Kansas City. These centers are staffed by full-time teachers and junior/senior students. They are typically open all hours of the school day, and students can seek help anytime. We liked what we saw, but how could we take their version of a hub and design a center for St. James Academy?

This gave birth to the Spark Center for Academics (or “Spark” for short). Our concept incorporated Math and English (and whatever other subject students bring to us). The design centered around three uses. Students can learn concepts with the help of mentors. Students can collaborate as a spot for group work. Students can find enrichment through academic activities and challenges.

To make sure we got it right, Spark was piloted over two academic years. The school made a serious commitment by dedicating the equivalency of two full-time teachers and dedicating a classroom out of the master schedule. We collected all sorts of data during the pilot: visits, subjects, teachers, time, frequency, and more. We tested the functionality of a variety of lighting, furniture, and technology. We trained and refined our training for our teachers and peer mentors (who we affectionately named “Sparkplugs”). We even hired an independent educational researcher to help us understand the findings.

So what did we learn in those two years?

First, the Spark Center was used: 70% of our students visit Spark; we averaged about 5000 visits per school year; and of the kids visiting, approximately 35% visit more than twice, with many students visiting more than 10 times!

Second, the Spark Center moved the academic needle in the right direction. Our findings show that If a student has no Spark Center engagement, he would expect to score about a 26.4 on the ACT: English. If he has lots of engagement in the Spark Center, his predicted score goes up to a 27. We have similar findings in Math. No Spark Center engagement: 22.6. Lots of Spark Center engagement: 23.3. These increases are statistically significant and set students up for greater success in college.

After two years of piloting, we knew Spark was working and that we had outgrown our classroom. So, in collaboration with Multistudio (design and architecture), we leveraged existing spaces in academic wing to almost triple the Spark Center footprint. The design was based on everything we had learned in the two pilot years. From October 2022 to August 2023, we went from raising the funds Auction to opening doors.

The new space has become the literal and figurative center of academics. We now have more room to work, more seats for more students, floor to ceiling dry-erase walls, functional furniture, appropriate lighting, and an open-concept so all students feel comfortable. The design almost pulls students in as they walk down the hallway.

So how is all this a mission fit? At the core of the Spark Center are relationships, which is a St. James Academy value. Sparkplug training begins with Matthew 19:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Here in the Spark Center, this innovative space dedicated to moving academic metrics, students are still encountering Jesus through the vulnerability they show each other, the friendships they form, and the lessons they learn. “With all the distraction in today’s hyper-technological world, some face-to-face interaction through mentoring, tutoring and coaching is exactly what students need most” (Seth Linden). And students can find it daily in the Spark Center.