Francine Lee fears for her son. The 17-year-old has grown fidgety in recent days, complaining about boredom and having little to do in their West Baltimore neighborhood. But even as Jeremiah Lee-Moore nears manhood and seeks more independence, his mother knows that her job of shaping him into a well-rounded, college-bound young man is far from over. She wants him to do something constructive this summer, her ambitions for her only child heightened by the recent civil unrest and rioting in Baltimore after the police-involved death of a black man little older than Jeremiah.
“I thought, ‘What am I supposed to do with my son,’” Lee said. Her son regularly attends a church just a few blocks away from where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested and suffered a fatal injury while in police custody last month. “I’m scared,” she said. “It’s hard enough for a black young man to be out there. This just made it worse.”
Parents in cities across the country have long expressed frustration about the lack of affordable summer academic and employment opportunities in the places where they are needed most. But after a year of raucous demonstrations in the U.S. focused on how urban youths are sometimes treated by law-enforcement personnel and others in positions of power, many parents are especially worried about finding something productive for their children to do to avoid the emptiness and restlessness frequently associated with the end of the school year. Summer camps or job-placement programs are often too expensive or inconveniently located for inner-city youths, but numerous studies show such opportunities provide far-reaching rewards for children already lagging behind their white and more affluent peers.
“Middle-class families spend enormous amounts of time and money getting their kids into summer activities that will distinguish them later in life,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, the director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, who has studied the impact of summer learning and youth-employment programs. She has found strong evidence that such opportunities help slow a child’s summer learning loss and speed academic achievement in subsequent school years. “Why would we not want this for every kid? There are just all sorts of benefits that flow from this,” she said.
Many major cities in the U.S. have championed well-established and growing summer youth-employment programs, which typically provide six-week job opportunities to teenagers in low-income communities without the connections and resources of their middle-class peers. In cities such as Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore, summer job initiatives provide tens of thousands of teenagers with public- and private-sector opportunities.
However, even the largest programs are unable to meet the demand for their offerings. Last year, 47,000 teens were able to secure summer jobs in New York, but almost 90,000 applicants could not be served, according to city officials. Meanwhile, around 11,000 of 15,000 applicants managed to get summer jobs in Los Angeles and roughly 5,000 of 8,000 applicants were placed in such positions in Baltimore.
Those who aren’t landing jobs through city programs compete with the labor market at large for seasonal work. While 5.5 percent of Americans looking for work did not have jobs in March, the unemployment rate for those ages between 16 and 24 was 12.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last summer, the unemployment rate for teens and young adults hovered above 13.0 percent. At the same time, the unemployment rate for black and Hispanic young people was as much as double the rate for whites in the same age cohort.
With the help of a mentor a couple of summers ago, Jeremiah Lee-Moore found a job at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, his mother said. “More than anything, he learned responsibility,” Lee said. “He was able to get up every day and didn’t miss any days of work. He bought himself tennis shoes, he could go to the movies when he wanted, and he paid for his own school supplies. I know that was a big impact on him. That made him really proud of himself.”
Last summer, Jeremiah missed the application deadline for the Baltimore’s YouthWorks employment program, so all the slots were filled. His Big Brother mentor, civil attorney Robert Leonard, 33, who is white and grew up in comparatively affluent Baltimore County, said it was easier for him there to find summer waiter or retail jobs when he was a teen than it is for Jeremiah in the nearby city now. “It’s just not like that in the many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, where a Korean grocery store or a liquor store isn’t going to hire Jeremiah,” Leonard said.
Several officials who run city summer youth-employment programs said they handle unmet job demands by redirecting teens into other programs that provide the structure and skills-building experience of a job. “Just because you are not getting paid, that doesn’t mean that you can’t go to your local community center and volunteer,” said Andre White, acting assistant commissioner for youth workforce development in New York.
Several of Baltimore's recreational centers were closed in 2013 as part of the mayor's plan to invest in fewer, higher-quality facilities, according to a Baltimore Sun report. That strategy angered many parents and members of the community, who said relied on youth programs hosted at the centers to keep children occupied during the school year and the summer break.
For parents with younger children, securing slots in summer day camps and learning programs can be particularly hard when it costs money to participate, said Jeffrey Groves, founder of the Black Parent Group, a support organization for parents of black children in Minneapolis. He tells parents summer-school enrollment is a safe bet when there are few alternatives.
“We made it a point that our children, from day one, got into summer school to continue to learn,” Groves said of his son and daughter, who are 13 and 17, respectively. “My wife and I believe that engagement will deter the things that come with idle time.”
Just one-third of U.S. households enroll their children in summer learning programs, according to the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA). Experts have emphasized the need for high-quality, needs-tailored programs that are a compressed rehashing of what students go over during the regular school year. Groves expressed frustration that too few of the public summer programs in communities of color are offering affordable opportunities for skills development at a young age.
“We don’t have anything in place for the next generation to learn how to pick up a trade and enhance their opportunities for work,” Groves said. He added that too many parents err in assuming that career choice should happen when a child has reached college age. “That’s just not reality.”
Katie Willse, the chief program officer at NSLA, which builds awareness around the issue of summer learning loss, said low levels of quality summer engagement is a major contributor to the achievement gap along racial and socioeconomic lines. Each summer, low-income youths who lack access to quality learning programs typically lose two to three months in reading achievement, while their high-income peers who do have access are staying on course or making gains, Willse said. These losses and gains can be cumulative, year after year.
Low-income youths engaged in innovative summer learning and employment programs are bending academic achievement and social trends in a positive direction, several recent studies have shown. Those who participated in New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program between 2005 and 2008 were less likely to be in prison and more likely to be alive in the years after the summer they participated, according to an analysis by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2012, another study of the New York program found an increase in school attendance among participants, especially those who were struggling academically, in the following school year. These was also an increase in the likelihood participants would pass a statewide high-school math or English examination, according to the study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
Lee didn’t want her 17-year-old son to join the protests in Baltimore focused on Gray’s death last month, believing his time would be better spent learning skills that could keep him off the streets. The two recently had a falling-out over it, Lee said. At the same time, she couldn’t blame him for wanting to seek justice for Gray and demand more resources in their community, she said.
But, right now, Lee wants all her son’s youthful energy and intellect directed toward his finishing high school and going off to college next summer. “I’m not saying I’ve got a straight-A student,” Lee said. “I’m just saying he’s a good boy and he deserves a chance. I don’t want my son to be another statistic -- another young black man shot in the streets.”