Over the last year the city has successfully expanded early childhood education programs to thousands of New York City families. The city’s free universal Pre-K program is making it possible for many low-income families to enroll their children in high-quality programs and give them the strong educational start they need to succeed in school and life.
Research shows that such programs yield significant long-term benefits for children, from greater self-confidence and respect for others to critical concentration and life-long learning skills.
Making early childhood education programs more accessible is based on the calculus that timely investments in our children now will reap greater benefits later. The obvious question is, why aren’t we taking a similar approach on the other end of the educational spectrum?
There’s an increasing body of evidence supporting the need to connect academic work in high school to career development experiences. That is, to make a formal connection between the summer job experiences of young people and year-round schooling.
Last week, my organization released a new report which makes the case for universal summer jobs, and outlines how to enhance the City’s existing Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) to better connect it to students’ year-round educational experiences in school, build young people’s job skills, and improve their chances of long-term career success.
The report, “Universal Summer Jobs for New York City Youth,” cites data showing the positive impact that summer jobs have on a range of academic, behavioral and employment-related outcomes for youth. Summer jobs have been shown to reduce “summer melt” (the decreases in academic skills that happen during idle months); reduce risky behavior; improve chances of longer-term career success; and, infuse our public, nonprofit, and private sector employers with youthful energy and effort.
Where SYEP falls short is in funding and design.
Despite the best efforts of the City’s Division of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), SYEP suffers from the lack of stable funding from year to year. Job providers are sometimes notified just weeks, if not days, before service levels are confirmed making it difficult to work with employers to identify quality work sites ahead of time. This creates a level of uncertainty that hinders a program that already turns away more than half of its applicants due to funding limits. Last year, more than 100,000 youth applied for SYEP, but the City funded only 55,000 program slots.
Reimagining SYEP to better serve youth
But more troubling is the program’s lack of diversification in its services for youth at different ages and stages of their development. There is no mechanism connecting the summer job to each young person’s schooling and longer-term employment pathways. Rather, SYEP offers job placements on a lottery basis to any NYC youth, between ages 14 through 24, entirely based on availability. This ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is counterproductive for older youth (ages 22 to 24) who are better served by a more standard transitional job initiative with the goal of placement in a permanent job.
In a departure from the current summer youth employment model, CSS proposes that the city adopt a paid Summer Internship Program that is more school-connected, offering distinct, sequenced job experiences for young people at different stages. It would be open to all public high school students who want a summer job.
The youngest program participants would be placed in low-stakes job settings oriented around community service, not a formal job, where they would learn about working as a team, showing up on time, and dealing with supervisors. After 10th grade, participants would “graduate” into entry-level positions in nonprofits organizations. After 11th and 12th grades, students would be promoted into more formal private, public and nonprofit jobs, which would be connected to the skills and experiences they have demonstrated during the school year.
Such an approach would appeal to private employers who are interested in stronger pools of students for summer jobs. It would also provide an incentive for students not to drop out from high school.
In a recent CSS poll, 90 percent of Latinos said that it is important for the city to invest public tax revenues to create a universal summer jobs program.
We have made great strides in advancing access to early education through universal pre-kindergarten education. It’s time for the same type of effort for older youth making the tricky transition to adulthood, in a labor market that is harder than ever for young people to break into. A universal summer internship program will not be cheap. But it will cost less than our recent pre-k expansion, so we know it’s possible. All it takes is the will to do it.