Spark Academy is igniting innovation

Spark Academy, the state’s newest charter school, is transforming the high school education experience


At a Spark Academy open house in July, John Larochelle shows off a robot that he built himself and takes to competitions.
Photo by Karen Bachelder

Spark Academy of Advanced Technology high school students can expect to receive much more than a diploma after four years.

This new charter school provides the opportunity for graduates to become certified for hard-to-fill jobs within growing advanced technology fields. And, if students want to take summer classes and complete additional coursework at Manchester Community College, they could potentially earn an associate’s degree while they are still in high school.

The brainchild of a small group of educators aiming to help respond to the state’s advanced manufacturing employee shortage and prepare high school students for advanced manufacturing careers, Spark Academy will enroll its first class in September at its Manchester Community College site.

Unlike other concurrent enrollment programs that allow New Hampshire high school students to earn both high school and college credits while they attend high school, Spark Academy embeds its college-level technology courses into the program from day one.

Its curriculum and course sequencing were built with input from employers and technology organizations and designed in concert with Manchester Community College instructors, who also teach Spark students in college classrooms.

Spark Academy is creating technical pathways for students to be certified in advanced technologies fields such as manufacturing, robotics, mechatronics, cybersecurity, computer science, welding, and HVAC. Many parents are embracing this alternative, which offers a clearer pathway toward a career in “new collar” fields.

After four years at tuition-free Spark Academy, the majority of students will earn both a high school diploma and a certificate or associate’s degree through CCSNH, according to the Spark Academy website.

Workforce shortage

Not just a New Hampshire problem, the shortage of qualified employees in the new-collar economy has reached a critical shortage level. As many as 2.4 million manufacturing jobs may go unfilled by 2028, putting $454 billion in production at risk, consulting company Deloitte stated in a recent report.

Closer to home, manufacturing accounts for 10% of New Hampshire’s workforce and 11% of the total output of the state. The need for technicians with advanced problem-solving skills will increase, especially in the fields of mechatronics and advanced manufacturing, Spark Academy’s founders said.

Denis Mailloux, director of Spark Academy, makes a presentation to a group of parents and prospective students about the school’s curriculum during an open house on July 31.
Photo by Karen Bachelder

Sue Gilbert, of Concord, whose son Reece will enter Spark Academy this fall, said Reece’s older brother has greatly benefitted from Concord High School’s technology program, which granted him dual enrollment college credits he can use toward his degree. Spark should be a good fit for Reece, she said, because he’s shown an aptitude for hands-on learning and likes creating new things.

Gilbert first learned about Spark on the radio and thought it would provide Reece a great opportunity to test the waters — and be able to both fail and succeed in a smaller environment with the support of encouraging teachers and like-minded peers.

“Everyone is pushing kids into four-year degrees (that can carry with them) a ton of debt and steering them away from the blue-collar work that is still very much needed in our society,” Gilbert said.

“We feel that Reece will be able to come out of this program with a better understanding of what he wants to be and potentially be prepared to go right into that career path immediately.”

The vision

Denis Mailloux, director of Spark Academy and former principal of Trinity High School and St. Joseph’s Junior High School in Manchester, said he was approached to start a technology-based charter school by Patricia Humphrey, founder of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative School (NHCIS) and a founder of the Academy for Science and Design (ASD) in Nashua and now Spark Academy board member; and Dan Larochelle, Manchester Community College’s department chair for manufacturing and robotics and now Spark Academy’s director of technology.

Borrowing upon a technology-focused charter school model in Connecticut, Spark Academy decided to embed itself within a community college. After speaking with several experts, Mailloux and the team — which included Larochelle; Humphrey; Joe Pouliot, former Trinity head of robotics and physics teacher and now Spark science teacher; Sarah Shakour Carter, who took charge of the charter-writing process; and Kim Lavallee of the Founders Academy Foundation — quickly assembled to develop a curriculum and get a charter for the school approved by the New Hampshire Department of Education in mid-April.

Gary Thomas, president of Northpoint Construction Management Company, also joined in support of the school and its mission to help prepare a new generation of qualified tradespeople and technicians.

The school is funded by state revenue, with state and federal start-up grants, fundraising revenue and philanthropic contributions responsible for making up the balance of its proposed $550,000 first-year budget, according to its charter.

Mailloux agreed to sign on as Spark Academy’s director last spring. An educator with more than 30 years of school leadership experience, Mailloux said he’s excited about the possibilities Spark Academy will bring to New Hampshire students.

The school, he said, answers a different call and fulfills a different need than others he’s worked for. It’s a mission Mailloux said he’s passionate about — both his father and grandfather were tradespeople, and he grew up working for them. Now, he’ll be able to help prepare the next generation of skilled tradespeople through Spark Academy’s mission.

“I’m excited about the possibilities students will have in advanced manufacturing technology; that’s why we established this first pathway for them. In this state alone, more than 700 positions cannot be filled. These students will have with these technology certifications and can expect to earn a baseline salary over $40,000; and with overtime, a graduate could be earning $50,000 per year — without incurring college debt,” he said.

The Spark Academy mission is to “empower our students with opportunities to master technical skills, both practical and theoretical, in the context of a high school and early college program that emphasizes the dignity and value of work.”

Focused on problem solving, Spark Academy’s curriculum combines math, science, and technology field study with humanities classes (a focus on English and history standards) that stress both research and communication. The goal is to prepare students to enter the technical careers of their choice upon graduation or through further study.

Dan Larochelle, technology director at Spark Academy, demonstrates one of the robots to parents and prospective students.
Photo by Karen Bachelder

Humphrey, who has years of experience both in teaching and administration and has been working on charter school projects since 1995, said charter schools like Spark Academy provide amazing opportunities and experiences for New Hampshire children. She credits the talent and experience of Mailloux and Larochelle for helping get the school’s unique concept off the ground and Manchester Community College for making it a reality.

“A trade high school used to be common in every state in the union. My husband graduated trade school in Bristol, Conn., We wanted to start one, but had no idea how you could do it,” she said.

“The miracle that solved our program was Manchester Community College. We could use their equipment, staff, and incredibly knowledgeable people.”

Integrated curriculum

Spark Academy students must enroll in ninth grade, as technology classes are embedded into their high school curriculum the very first semester they start. To miss these foundational classes would not allow an incoming 10th- or 11th-grader the time or opportunity to complete missed work.

In its inaugural year, Mailloux said the school is on target to enroll 30 students. The target for next year’s first-year class will be 60, he said.

In addition to technology field study courses, students progress through four levels of coursework in each of the areas of math, science, and the humanities.

For example, level one of the math curriculum sequence includes algebra and geometry. Level two includes classes in statistics and entrepreneurship and economics. In levels three and four, students have the option to take additional math courses through Manchester Community College.  These Running Start or Early College courses (see related sidebar) count toward their college certificate or associate’s degree.

Technical field study, overseen by Larochelle, requires students in level one to take courses in Computer Aided Design (CAD);  participate
in “makerspace workshops,” which include projects that delve into woodworking, laser cutting, 3D printing, electronics and other tools; and computer coding. In levels two through four, students take college-level courses in advanced manufacturing technology, which could lead to an advanced manufacturing degree, CAD certificate, mechatronics certificate, or robotics certificate.

The result? Graduates can look forward to jobs as mechanical engineering technicians, robotics operators or technicians, manufacturing technicians, or research and design technicians.

“Right now, CTE centers are doing a really good job at filling pathways to four-year schools. What we are seeing here is an acute need for filling jobs in the technician role. Currently employers like GE or Velcro are using engineers to do a technician’s work; you can’t find a technician with the right skill set to do the job,” he said.

If students want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, their credits will transfer to a four-year program through the Mechanical Engineering Technology, Mechatronics, or Robotics pathways, according to Larochelle.

Spark’s approach to learning aims to train technicians and provide an environment where students get plenty of hands-on time to apply their learning in a safe environment.

By implementing a “cohort” model, in which groups of 15 students travel to their classes as a group throughout the year, Larochelle said students not only get to know one another well but can act as mentors or learn from other students. By developing close relationships, they are also developing “soft skills” employers are also looking for, he said.

Not just for the boys

Spark Academy is open to any student who has an interest in a technology-oriented career, or who wants to explore the pathway further in a hands-on environment, Mailloux said. Girls are especially welcome and encouraged to apply. There are a few girls who will be in Spark Academy’s inaugural class.

“I keep hearing repeatedly that employers cannot find enough women to fill positions. They are asking for that additional perspective that women can bring to the workforce,” he said.

The cohort environment is one in which girls will particularly flourish, said Larochelle, adding that he and Pouliot have been participating in outreach to women in technology for more than 20 years.

“The environment of the cohort reinforces that it is a safe area to grow and learn how to adapt to these new skills and show some of the boys what they can do,” he said.

No matter what, all students are expected to work hard. Certifications and degrees must be earned, and students should be prepared to put forth their best effort. If they do, the rewards are great.

“We want to encourage the development of a strong work ethic, develop in students the sense that if you persist, you will succeed,” Mailloux said. “We are dedicated to helping students to succeed. If you keep at it, we will keep at it, and get them across the finish line.”

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks has worked as a journalist and in marketing roles throughout the Granite State. She now regularly writes for New-England based higher education, business, and technology organizations.

Categories: Education