Kelly Agnew-Barajas and her husband work full time and constantly juggle caring for their children, 18-month-old Sebastian and 5-year-old Julian, with their careers. One partner drops the boys off at day care and pre-K in their Brooklyn, New York neighborhood while the other does the daily pick-up. For the most part the arrangement works.
Until, of course, it doesn’t.
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When Agnew-Barajas learned, for example, that Julian’s after-school program would end on June 12 – even though classes would continue until June 17 – she and her spouse were caught completely off guard. In addition, since the eight-week summer day camp that Julian will attend does not begin until June 29, figuring out what to do with him during this interval became a pressing problem.
“My mother, who is retired, will visit for a week and help us,” Agnew-Barajas told Truthout, “and Julian will go to the baby’s day-care center a few times, at a cost of $50 a day. We’ll also have to deal with a gap at the end of the summer, once camp ends, but before school resumes. Like other parents, we do what we have to do, but people like us – I work with refugees and my husband is a city worker – go into debt putting costs for stuff like camp on a credit card.”
The Agnew-Barajas family is hardly unique.
In fact, thanks to nationwide cuts in municipal recreation and Summer Youth Employment programs, parents throughout the US are scrambling to figure out how to keep their kids occupied and safe during the dog days of summer.
About 11 million children attend more than 12,000 day and overnight camps scattered throughout the 50 states, at a cost of between $150 a week at the low end and more than $1,000 a week at the high.
Cookie Joy Mellitz is the director of three camps run by the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, one of the country’s premier, progressive teacher-training centers. “Camp is not a luxury anymore,” Mellitz told Truthout.”The way the economy has developed, even if people work from home, they still need care for their children.”
As Mellitz speaks, her love of all things camp-related is audible, and she quickly lists the many benefits of attendance. “The first is social and emotional growth, learning to feel empathy for other people, something that children don’t usually develop on their own,” she says. “Like other camps all over the country, our programs require kids to unplug and learn to talk to each other.”
Furthermore, she notes that camps teach children to be independent and solve problems, mediate conflicts and try different solutions to see what works. Relationships develop and intense friendships form, sometimes lasting a lifetime. “So much schooling is now test-driven,” Mellitz adds, “but camp promotes experiential learning and gives kids a chance to fail, learn from failure and begin to acknowledge the value of process over the bottom-line answer.”
Still, Melitz is acutely aware that finances present a roadblock, making camp attendance impossible for many kids. Although 10 percent of Bank Street’s revenue goes toward financial aid, Melitz understands that camp is all too often out of reach for low-income families.
So what to do? Many parents walk to the local library for at least a few hours a day of programmatic respite. Needless to say this is a far cry from day camp or the kinds of day-long diversions that better-heeled families can afford. Despite cutbacks, Ellen Riordan, president of the Association for Library Services for Children, a division of the American Library Association, reports that both urban and rural libraries provide a wide range of summer services, including bringing in magicians, storytellers, musicians and scientists to engage and entertain neighborhood youth. “Libraries provide young children with a welcoming space. When parents can’t afford Gymboree, summer camp, or when playdates in their homes are not possible, libraries provide space for children to socialize with others and attend cultural enrichment programs.” This, she explains, can involve a partnership with a community gardening club or group of professional chemists to promote interest in science, technology, engineering or math – so-called STEM subjects.
Furthermore, she says, ongoing efforts to promote reading are key since “summer slide,” the loss of skills acquired in the classroom, is a real phenomenon. While libraries have long-suggested summer book lists, Riordan notes that many branch libraries also offer computer classes for elementary school-aged kids, training them to use a mouse and keyboard through game playing.
Also, one newer area that Riordan says is changing the face of library services: Many branches are becoming summer meal sites, places where the 19.7 million kids who receive free or low-cost meals during the school year, can come to eat. “This type of program won’t fit well in every building,” Riordan says, “but many libraries across the US are now providing nutrition for people who need it.” It’s all part of the mission, she says, to provide services on a “cradle-to-career continuum.”
Toward that end, Chris Shoemaker, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, helps libraries create summer college and career readiness programs for teens and young adults. “Rather than just buying books, putting them on the shelves, and saying, ‘Hey, read,’ libraries are going out into the community,” he begins. Over the past few years, they’ve also incorporated the connective learning model developed by cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito and digital learning and gaming expert Katie Salen Tekinbas to reduce the equity gap in technology access that presently divides rich from poor.
This fact was underscored in 2013 when the Pew Research Center released findings revealing that 56 percent of teachers in “under-resourced” schools lacked the money to incorporate technology into classroom teaching. Even more appalling, just 3 percent of students in schools attended by low-income kids had computers in their homes.
“Libraries have traditionally offered summer reading programs, but we’re now shifting to address how they can offer services beyond books,” Shoemaker says. “Nontraditional programs, for example, free classes in computer coding or programming, are a way to get kids who might not be typical library users in the door.”
Still, for older kids, these types of programs – no matter how great or innovative – do not replace the need for summer jobs: opportunities that teach concrete skills, help kids figure out what they want to do as adults and put a few dollars in their pockets.
According to a January 2015 report in US News and World Report, low-income teens are 20 percent less likely to be employed than their middle- or upper-class peers. Even worse, teen males from high-income families are five times more likely to have a job than males from poor, disproportionately African-American and Latino, households. Overall, youth unemployment hovers at an official rate of 27.7 percent. For those who are Black or Brown, it can be an abominable 60 percent to 70 percent.
“We have only half as many young people working today as we had 40 years ago,” says Andrew O. Moore, director of Youth and Young Adult Connections at the nonpartisan National League of Cities. “In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the federal government allocated money for summer youth employment programs.”
A few years after passage of the Workforce Investment Act [WIA] in 1998 – the Act authorized $250 million for jobs programs serving those aged 14 to 21 who “faced barriers to employment or school completion” – the cutbacks began. In fact, when WIA expired in 2003, it was not reauthorized. Several years later, the Great Recession of 2007 hit, and as part of the Recovery Act, money was earmarked to pay for summer youth employment programs for two years, 2009 and 2010. “After that, cities had to fall back on their own artfulness,” Moore says. In essence, city officials needed to solicit funds from private individuals and corporate donors for all youth employment initiatives. According to Moore, “This led to a circumstance where most of the money for summer jobs now comes from private sources, not the federal government. In most places they haven’t raised enough to pay the kids and their supervisors, so the programs have shrunk dramatically. US Mayors regularly make pleas to Washington for funding. They want kids to be entertained, occupied and educated.”
Moore begins to sound angry as we near the end of our phone conversation. “No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, if you want to see young people develop an understanding of the value of work, you have to provide them with early work experience,” he says.
Indeed, summer jobs have long been a rite of passage for young people, and relying on private companies and donors to pick up the slack has been nothing short of disastrous. A 2014 Zogby poll conducted for the US Conference of Mayors found that 84.3 percent of the “business decision makers” queried admitted they had not hired any youth whatsoever in 2012. And although the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was signed into law last July – theoretically authorizing the Feds to invest in summer youth employment – it remains to be seen whether any new funding will land in city coffers.
Meanwhile, parents of teens and younger children are scrambling to figure out how best to keep their kids engaged, safe and cared for once public school doors close for the summer. Some take time off work, if they can: Brooklyn, New York, parent Leah Ruggiero, for example, opted to take a leave from her job – possible only because she is a freelancer – to watch her two daughters in July and August. “Several of my girlfriends are in a similar boat, so we plan to take the kids to all the free stuff that’s offered by the city,” she says. “We’ll also try to unplug from technology and give the kids a lot of reading time to explore books in our terrific local library.”
Seattle-based blogger Lecia Wolf Phinney, now completing her first book, is trying to stay focused on summer’s upside: “During the school year, I spend an hour each morning driving my boys, ages 10 and 12, to school and an hour in the afternoon doing the reverse commute. When school is out, I don’t have these two hours in the car. I don’t have homework to help with, and there are no hockey practices or games, no computer coding club after school, no lacrosse practice, no ultimate Frisbee, no cross-country meets. The boys are home more during the summer; so am I.”
Like Agnew-Barajas and Ruggiero, Phinney admits that, even for parents who have copious time to spend with their kids over the summer, these months can be extremely stressful. At the same time, warmer temperatures, longer days and less structure can be balm for the spirit. At least that’s what she’s hoping.