Lost Time for Learning

I have written this op-ed in different forms and in different places since 1979. It is spring, and that can only mean one thing in the impoverished field of youth development: Summer youth employment program opportunities are at risk (again!).


For two decades I have disseminated the well-known research finding that young people, especially the young urban poor, experience a “learning loss” over the summer months. Academic skills actually erode from June through August. Teachers understand this and compensate by spending much of September through November of each school year helping to bring student reading and math skills back up to the levels they were when the school doors closed for the summer. This shrinking of learning time is a great loss for children, schools and families. Imagine the effects on the dropout rate and test scores.


Summer programs, including jobs programs, keep skills up and prevent problems later in life. There are several reasons.


First, work experience, even the most humble and labor intensive, forces young people to apply themselves (by using reading or math, for instance, and working in groups) in ways that go beyond the alternative of just “hanging out.” Work experience generates a work record on a teen’s resume and helps contribute to the family budget. Community agencies and nonprofits benefit, too, from the work and service that young people perform in their settings.


Consider now if work experience were combined with formal learning opportunities through summer school, reading programs, mentoring, academic coaching or enriched learning based at the worksite. We have learned that these special strategies have an even larger impact.


Summer matters. Yet in urban communities, especially the largest, there is a huge threat to creating meaningful “earning and learning” summer opportunities.


The enactment of the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998 means that local communities will no longer receive a “stand-alone” grant in 2001 to operate what used to be called the summer employment and training program (formerly SYETP). School year and summer dollars have been combined with the well-intentioned idea that year-round services are needed to lift the prospects of the poorest teenagers. “Let’s do more for fewer kids,” is the mantra. The law allows summer programming, but in effect the program is being killed off.


Boston’s ABCD, a community agency with roots back to the War on Poverty, served roughly 900 youths in its federally funded summer program in 1999, 340 last year, and might serve 150 or so this coming summer. Some ABCD children spend time at local universities for academic summer enrichments. Others work in community settings on project-based learning efforts tied to their career interests. Others just serve the participating agencies.


We need state and local funders to pony up supplemental funding for summer programs like ABCD’s. In Massachusetts, we had supplemental funding under an “at-risk” youth initiative, but that, too, has largely disappeared. Why the cutback in state dollars? State lawmakers believe that jobs are plentiful. Hello, State House: Are jobs plentiful for at-risk 14- to 15-year-olds, often from minority groups? Are opportunities plentiful to help teens combine work and learning in creative ways and to help participating agencies? Should we shorten the time on learning so much that half or more of inner-city kids will likely fail statewide standardized testing?


New York City recently held hearings on the need to preserve summer programs. What is happening in your community?


Federal funds are not enough, especially with the 5 percent cut targeted in the Bush domestic budget for U.S. Department of Labor programs like the Workforce Investment Act. This creates the need to steal from Peter (school-year months) to pay Paul (summer). We need more resources; states and mayors are the last hope, even if it means starting all over and educating them about the purposes of this investment.


With blended funding we can promote work, leaning and healthy youth development. Will it happen? In our frustrating field, look for another op-ed on this subject in 2002.



Andrew Hahn is a professor at and director of the Heller School’s master’s degree programs in children, youth and family studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.


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