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Bridging Education and Employment in Summer Youth Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Juffras
July 9, 2018

Large cities in the United States have been expanding their summer youth employment programs in recent years. “One Summer Chicago” has doubled its enrollment since 2011 and now serves more than 30,000 young people each summer. Participation in “Grow Detroit’s Young Talent” rose from 5,600 in 2015 to more than 8,000 in 2017. New York City served a record 70,000 youths in its summer youth employment program last year, up sharply from 29,000 in 2012.

Why are city officials focused on a program model that dates back more than 50 years to the War on Poverty? The growth of summer youth programs responds, in part, to a 20-year drop in youth employment rates and broader concern about “disconnected youth” who are not working or in school. Moreover, research has shown that summer youth programs reduce violence and fatalities among youth. In the words of New York City Council member Jumaane Williams, “(W)e know … employing young people means stronger families, crime reductions and – literally, young people remaining alive.”

While recognizing these crucial benefits, policymakers should try to make summer youth programs more effective in a changing economy that demands higher levels of skill and education. A randomized, controlled study of New York’s summer youth program, the largest in the country, reported slightly lower earnings for youth in the three years after they participated and no impact on college enrollment. Another study of New York’s program (also using random assignment to the program and a control group) found “little impact on employment and earnings beyond the application summer” and no impact on high school or college outcomes.

These results should not be surprising. Many summer youth programs provide six weeks of work experience, usually with government agencies or community groups, which may not help participants (ages 14 up to 24 in some cities) succeed in a work force dominated by private, for-profit employers. Although some summer youth assignments are very beneficial, stories of make-work (or no work) jobs have plagued summer youth programs since they began.

Summer youth programs might improve on this record by supporting the academic preparation that young people will need to succeed in the workforce. In fact, “summer youth employment” is a bit of a misnomer because many younger participants perform service projects or attend work readiness or enrichment classes in fields such as music, art or computer science. Since classroom work is already part of the summer youth experience, why not look for synergies with the academic program?

The case for doing so is compelling. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that in large cities, proficiency rates in reading and math for fourth- and eighth-grade public school students ranged from 27 to 35 percent in 2017. Racial gaps in achievement are particularly large in American cities. Summer learning loss disproportionately harms children from low-income families—those who are most likely to enroll in summer youth programs—and summer learning programs can not only limit that loss but reverse it. Given the large and growing enrollments in city summer youth programs, there is a clear opportunity for the programs to boost student achievement by reinforcing and extending what youth learn in school.

One option is to offer “summer bridge” programs to 14- and 15-year-old summer youth who will start high school in the fall. Banneker High School, a selective city-wide school in Washington, DC, benefits from 30 summer youth slots for incoming freshmen to attend its Summer Institute. This program offers classes in academic subjects and study skills to prepare students for a rigorous curriculum and introduce them to the school and its staff. Friendship Public Charter School also provides summer bridge slots to incoming high school freshmen through the D.C. summer youth program.

Summer bridge programs could help adolescents successfully navigate the transition to high school, a critical transition point when students adjust to larger schools with more specialized courses and begin making choices about higher education and careers. Summer bridge could also incorporate enrichment opportunities in art, music and other subjects.

Another way to align school improvement efforts and summer youth programs is by emphasizing career and technical education. Many urban schools have established career academies that prepare students to work in high-demand fields such as health care, hospitality and information technology. Summer youth placements that match a student’s career focus would contribute to the success of career academies by giving students more practical experience and building their resumes.

Finally, summer youth programs could provide second chances for students who might not graduate from high school because they have failed or not taken required courses. Combining summer employment and summer school could be an invaluable help for students in such situations.

Summer youth programs represent a valuable investment in youth development, but they must be designed to meet the needs of today’s society and economy. Coordinating summer youth programs and school reform efforts is one way to do just that and increase our return on this significant investment.

Jason Juffras has 20 years of experience in public budgeting, policymaking and program evaluation. He holds a doctorate in public policy and administration from The George Washington University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He can be reached at [email protected].

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