There is, perhaps, no more powerful place in which the dream of opportunity that America promises is brought to life than in our public schools. School is where our children spend the majority of their waking hours, where they build the skills that will carry them into their future lives and professions, where they first navigate the world without a parent by their side, and where they are most influenced by peers and others outside of family. Making the very most of the time that children spend away from their families is the challenge that faces every person who works to ensure that the dream of opportunity will be realized for all. For far too many children, however, there is no block of time left as under- or un-utilized than after school and during the summer, when classroom time has ended but parents are at work. For children not engaged in high-quality after-school and summer programs, these are long hours of opportunity missed, time not-well-spent, moments that might instead be filled in un-productive, or even dangerous, ways. Compared to peers who are fully engaged during this time, too many of children fall behind … each empty hour making the American dream harder to attain. Summer, in particular, deals a heavy blow: The National Summer Learning Association highlights that more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.
We increasingly hear talk these days about youth engagement, a popular youth-development strategy that has been successful in many places – but that remains underused in many others. True youth engagement involves young people in the creation of their own destinies. The education and youth-service fields have substantially increased youth-engagement efforts and opportunities in recent years, reaping some wonderful results. But we need to look at what we’ve learned from those efforts so that we can do better. Too often, adults embrace youth engagement weakly: They conduct a youth survey, hold a summit or appoint a few students to an advisory board. Meaningful youth engagement, on the other hand, is more complex and more beneficial.
While working on a brochure for Mohawk Industries, Echo Garrett heard many stories about the company’s then-vice president of marketing, Sam Bracken. Moved by his life story, she eventually co-authored a book with him, titled “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journal to Radical Change,” chronicling his journey from homelessness in Las Vegas to football stardom at Georgia Tech. Both Garrett and Bracken share an interest in helping foster care youth. The nation’s foster care system serves more than 400,000 young people — a quarter of them ages 14 to 17 — with approximately 20,000 individuals turning 18 and becoming legally emancipated from foster services every year. Atlanta-based advocacy group EmpowerMEnt indicates that nearly half of teens leaving foster care at 18 lack high school diplomas.
It is very likely that the teens we encounter know someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, considering that there are 17 million alcoholics and several million drug abusers in the United States, and each one affects about four other people, according to the National Institutes of Health. Plus, 86 percent of U.S. high school students say that some classmates are drugging, drinking and smoking during the school day, reports The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Opening up about sensitive subjects like substance abuse can be a challenge at any age, but for teenagers it may be extra difficult. It’s not cool to admit something is bothering them or to talk about something that makes them feel vulnerable. Mentioning a problem they’re having with an alcoholic or drug addict is a topic they might avoid at all costs. We who work with young people (I am a college professor and help to facilitate a teen support group) also can feel vulnerable when we have to communicate about sensitive or potentially volatile matters.
On a frigid February day in Boston, hundreds of young people backed by Mayor Thomas Menino rallied outside the statehouse for increased funding for summer jobs. Only about one in four teenagers in Massachusetts held a job last summer, rally organizers told the Associated Press. Twelve summers ago, more than half of all teens in the state worked. The decline in summer job opportunities is not unique to Massachusetts. Across the United States, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds fell from 51.7 percent in 2000 to about 33 percent in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Approximately 12 million children and teens attend summer camp every year, but whether camps serve any larger purpose beyond filling long, hot days — from academic enrichment to personal development — depends on how well they’re designed and managed, according to a joint report by researchers from the American Camp Association and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. “The goals, program activities, staff attention and physical and emotional safety of camps are what make outcome achievement possible,” notes the report, called “Camp Experiences and Developmental Outcomes for Youth” and published by Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. “Camps may be an underrecognized developmental setting in which young people find the desired supports and opportunities that contribute to positive development.”
Key to all this is carefully orchestrated hiring and training of the thousands of older teens and young adults who serve as staff, of whom approximately 65 percent return to work for multiple summers, according to the American Camp Association. “Leaders must be trained to know what the intended outcomes of the camp experience are and how to implement those outcomes,” the report asserts. Or as Grant Bullard, co-director of the Gwynn Valley camp in Brevard, N.C., testifies: “Staffing is the most important thing you do.