For some D.C. youths, summer jobs look like school

Aniya DeVaughn thought she was signing up for a summer job when she applied for the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, which places young people in government and private jobs across the city. Instead, what she got is more school.

For five hours each day for the past several weeks, DeVaughn, a 14-year-old rising freshman, has reported to McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington to work on math problems, reading assignments and business-skills lessons, all led by a teacher in a classroom. But unlike during the school year, she makes $5.25 an hour for her trouble. After taxes, she’ll have made about $500 this summer.

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DeVaughn is part of Summer Bridge, a new program created this summer by D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Department of Employment Services that aims to prepare incoming freshmen for high school through a combination of school work and career training.

“I was excited when I found out,” DeVaughn said. “I’d rather do this than a job.”

Traditionally, the roughly 14,000 youths aged 14 to 21 in the youth employment program are sent to a variety of work sites, where they perform routine tasks and shadow other workers.

But in June, DeVaughn received a letter informing her that she and about 300 other rising freshmen who applied to the program would be spending six weeks of the summer at one of two high schools — McKinley and H.D. Woodson.

Summer Bridge had initially enrolled 95 students who volunteered to participate. Instead of pay, those students will receive one-half of a high-school credit for the six-week program, which ends Friday. To fill the remaining slots, the District chose from the pool of Summer Youth Employment applicants.

“I think it’s great to have a learning setting she can actually get paid for,” said DeVaughn’s mother, Juanita DeVaughn. “I was happy she got something that could help her to have a foundation for high school.”

Some experts say that keeping students in an academic program over the summer can help curb summer learning loss, the term for the knowledge and skills students forget over the break.

“Summer Bridge addresses two very real problems: the lack of good workforce skills and summer learning loss,” said Kris Amundson, strategic communications director for Education Sector, a D.C. think tank. “Then again, if this looks and feels like school, there might be problems in September when kids say, ‘Hey, you paid me to come in July, why not now?’”

Organizers say Summer Bridge is more employment training than summer school. None of the students in Summer Bridge are missing credits or risk being held back a year, although some were selected for the program because they were behind in grades or attendance.

Along with traditional math and reading assignments, students in the program work through an online course that simulates running a sports network. They take career assessments and deliver presentations.

In some past years, thousands of Summer Youth Employment students were paid to attend so-called “educational enrichment programs,” which a city official once called “paid summer school.”

Now there is a new approach. Gerren Price, associate director of youth programs at the Department of Employment Services, said the Summer Bridge program focuses on “work readiness” rather than remedial education.

Organizers say Summer Bridge isn’t significantly different from other youth employment placements for 14- and 15-year-olds. Many are assigned to summer camps and community organizations rather than to office work, Price said.

“We’re not paying kids to redo work in the summer,” said Dan Gordon, deputy chief academic officer for D.C. Public Schools. “It’s about building success skills such as collaboration, timeliness and persistence.”

The program’s teachers learned a few weeks before classes began that some students would be getting high school credit and some would be getting paid.

One Summer Bridge instructor, who asked to remain anonymous because he was speaking without the consent of his supervisor, said the hybrid arrangement provoked occasional outbursts of jealousy from the for-credit students.

Another teacher, who also asked that her name not be used, said most of her students seemed to enjoy the program, but some wished they had typical summer jobs.

“There are three to four of my 17 students who say they’d rather be picking up trash in the 100-degree heat,” she said. “The biggest problem with this program is that the students didn’t know [Summer Bridge] was a possibility before they were assigned. A lot of them signed up to have a job, and instead they’re in school.”

The school system pays about $340,000 in operating costs for Summer Bridge. The employment services department pays the student stipends, which could total more than $150,000.

DeVaughn will start her freshman year of high school this month at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Southeast Washington. She says she’s already spent some of her hard-earned cash on new shoes and a visit to the hair salon.

“Now I’m saving up for a school uniform,” she said. “My parents are happy that I can get my own money so I can stop bugging them.”

 
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