Apair of giant tiger eyes stare down at a dozen teenagers zigzagging around the gymnasium of Wilson High School in Northwest Washington.
The teens, 10 boys and two girls, dribble soccer balls around multicolored cones, following their trainer’s instructions. They’re breathing hard, but the air conditioning is a respite from the heat of the outdoor basketball court, where they spent the morning. Their cheers and laughter reverberate off the gym’s walls, which are emblazoned with images of the school’s feline mascot.
The scene seems straight out of a cushy sports camp, except the teens are being paid.
“We’re part of a government program that gives kids employment for the summer, instead of just staying home and watching TV,” said 15-year-old Wendy Perez, one of more than 14,000 young adults and teenagers enrolled in the District’s decades-old Summer Youth Employment Program.
A community educator in training, Perez’s job today involves chasing a soccer ball in bare feet because she wore flip-flops to work. After four weeks of practice, Perez and her co-workers will spend two weeks teaching sports drills at a summer camp.
This is a far cry from the SYEP assignments of years past, which were dogged by accusations that participants were wasting their time. The program was overhauled last year to include more practical, sometimes nontraditional, approaches that would give young people an edge in the job market. Observers say it’s too soon to know whether the new strategy will succeed.
SYEP was created in 1979 under then-Mayor Marion Barry to get low-income youths off the streets and provide them with much-needed paychecks. The program has survived for more than three decades, becoming the nation’s second-largest summer jobs initiative after New York’s. To hear Perez and other teens describe it today, SYEP seems like a perfect way to spend a summer.
In the best-case scenarios, participants are paid to do something they love, learn valuable skills and earn a bullet point for their résumés.
But critics say best-case scenarios have been few and far between over the past 33 years. People have questioned the value of simply paying youths to stay out of trouble without monitoring what, if anything, they have learned. Critics also railed against safety issues and SYEP’s bloated budget.
At its largest, the program swelled to include more than 20,000 participants and cost the city more than $20 million. In 2008, which even organizers agree was SYEP’s low point, participants were repeatedly sent to the wrong work sites. Many were not paid for their work, while others were paid in full for doing little or no work. More than 200 participants didn’t meet the city’s residency requirement, hailing instead from Virginia and Maryland. Little attention was paid to matching youths with employers.
“A lot of people remember the horror stories of days of old,” said Gerren Price, assistant director for youth programs at the Department of Employment Services, which oversees SYEP. “In the past, it was kind of an open cattle call. The program was overcapacity and over budget, and a lot of young people missed out on a good experience.”
In 2011, after years of criticism, the program was overhauled. Price spearheaded the changes, which included a strict online application process, residency verification and a database of more than 500 employers. The Department of Employment Services organized a job fair where youths could meet employers, submit résumés and apply for positions based on their interests.
This summer, SYEP’s first day was notably uneventful. “We had just 50 young people with issues,” Price said. “They needed directions or they were confused about where to go. But we helped them out, and everything was fine. Our goal was to not be in the news that first day.”
The biggest challenge has been the recent hot, stormy weather and ensuing power outages. For several days, many programs, particularly those run out of D.C. public schools, had to shut down. (The students still got paid.)
Still, a scroll through Tweets using the hashtag #SYEP indicates that there are disgruntled teens working in the District.
“Some kids have said they don’t like their job,” Price said. “But that’s part of life. . . . One young man wanted to do clerical work, and he is assigned to an office at a hair salon. He’s not too happy about being surrounded by women all day.”
But critics aren’t convinced that a boy spending his summer in a beauty salon is the program’s biggest problem.
“We still don’t know what kids get out of it,” said Anne Abbott, a policy analyst at the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, which produces annual report cards for the program. “Having an intern is a lot of work. Especially with a high-schooler, you need to have structure. Are they supposed to learn punctuality? Conflict resolution? Microsoft Office? We don’t know.”
Across the District this summer, thousands of 14- to 21-year-olds are being paid by the city to do hundreds of jobs. Some are filing papers; others are scooping ice cream. Employers include federal agencies such as the National Park Service and Department of Commerce and private businesses such as IHOP.
A growing number of work sites are community-based organizations such as the Latin American Youth Center, which coordinates Perez’s community-educator program at Wilson High. In addition to the sports- and fitness-training track, the youth center also runs art- and sex-education training.
Sonia Sultana, 16, participated in the sex-ed program last summer and carried over her skills as a peer educator during the school year. This summer, the senior is helping to train new participants.
“When I joined, I was so shy,” Sultana said. “It took me one week to just say the word ‘sex.’ . . . I mean, I had never done anything like that, talk to a group of people about sex.”
Not all the summer jobs are quite so nontraditional.
One of SYEP’s biggest employers is the Internal Revenue Service, which has hired several hundred young people since the IRS’s inaugural summer with the program in 2009.
Shayna Sutton was part of the first class of IRS interns. Then a sophomore at the University of the District of Columbia, Sutton said that she didn’t have to think twice about applying to SYEP, despite its less-than-stellar track record.
“When I got an offer from the IRS, I had to go for it. It was a way in the door to the federal government,” Sutton said.
Sutton’s summer internship led to a series of temporary work opportunities; for the past three years, she has split her time between school and the IRS.
Kelcey Owusu-Yeboah is also a repeat IRS intern. The 21-year-old has been a SYEP participant for the past six years, first working at Trinity College, then at an auto shop in Northwest Washington.
For the past two summers, he has worked for the IRS. He said he was nervous on his first day; a finance major at Norfolk State University, Owusu-Yeboah knew that the job was important. But he quickly got over his fears when he met his supervisor, Anne Freeman.
“I was so happy to have the help,” Freeman said. “We just threw a bunch of stuff at him. And he was terrific.”
Owusu-Yeboah and Sutton are on track to graduate from college in 2013, and both hope their experiences will lead to permanent, full-time jobs at the IRS. Sutton said that, at the very least, the experience will be vital to any job search.
“It teaches young people not to be quitters,” Sutton said of the program. “You want to say you have some experience doing something. My sister’s résumé just has her address on it.”