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Summer of Service: A New Rite of Passage for Young Teens

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The beginning of summer vacation across the country brings delight to teenagers, especially those young teens who are graduating from middle school and looking forward to high school in the fall, alongside collective groans from their parents. As any parent who’s been through the rollercoaster years of middle school can attest, young teens increasingly exhibit spots of grown-up behavior—some good, some not so good.

The summer months between middle school and high school can be a particularly testing time when children are redefining themselves and in the process making decisions that may well determine who they will be as adults, for better or worse. For working parents, too, these next several months are a particular challenge. Their kids are too young for paid jobs and too old to be “babysat.”

Economically well-off families can afford a host of summer camps offering learning opportunities from language immersion to lacrosse. But in too many communities, offerings for older youth are limited and prices steep, making summer a time of particular peril.

Congress is examining one way to fill this void. Legislation sponsored by Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Thad Cochran (R-MI), and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), would support community efforts to engage young teens in intensive service as a “rite of passage” during the summer before high school. This legislation would amend the National and Community Service Act, which may be reauthorized this year.

In the 15 years since its enactment, national service has grown from a demonstration program to a large-scale system engaging more than 75,000 Americans a year in substantial service in exchange for an AmeriCorps education award. A less well-known program, Learn and Serve America, pays for “service-learning” for K-12 and college students, helping them connect their academic studies to real world applications through service.

These two programs lay the groundwork for a new “stream” of community service—summer learning for students in the middle grades. Imagine if every student spent the summer before high school serving full-time in his or her community. Research shows that service-learning promotes positive youth development like few other programs can, motivating students to achieve and teaching personal, social, and civic responsibility. By making the summer service experience a “rite of passage” for young people in transition to high school, whole communities could be transformed.

Unfortunately, research also shows that the young people who need this sort of experience the most are also the least likely to be engaged. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, disadvantaged teens are far less likely to volunteer than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds, by a 43 percent-to-59 percent margin. However, those disadvantaged youth who do serve hold more positive civic attitudes, discussing politics, believing that they can make a difference, and planning to go to college at higher rates than their low-income peers who do not volunteer.

Using AmeriCorps members and college students to lead the younger students in service offers the dual benefit of keeping costs reasonable and offering positive role models. Programs such as Citizen Schools in 16 cities across the country and City Year, an AmeriCorps program, have used this model effectively to expanded service for middle school students during out-of-school time. The Dodd-Cochran-DeLauro bill encourages this staffing model.

Middle-schoolers who perform a “summer of service” under the bill would also earn a $500 scholarship. At a time in life when students and their families need to begin thinking about college, this feature would positively brand participating youth as college material—even those who never considered the possibility—and could set these students and their families on a course of saving for college.

Not only would students and their families benefit, communities would as well. Existing programs have mobilized middle-school students to manage recycling programs, educate the community about environmental hazards, and tutor younger children. In Manatee County, Fla., for example, more than 80 percent of the county’s 12- to 18-year-olds volunteer through ManaTEENS, started 10 years ago by a 12-year-old.

ManaTEENS has transformed the local community, particularly for the elderly population, which outnumbers youth by a factor of 12 to 1. Club members provide free house painting, provide emergency supplies, and conduct home safety assessments and improvements along with dozens of other projects, many initiated by the students themselves. One project, a Meals on Wheels for pets, was created when students realized that low-income seniors could not afford pet food and were sharing their own meals with their dogs and cats.

The ManaTEENs have become a vital resource in this hurricane-prone area. More than 300 ManaTEENs have Community Emergency Response Team certifications, having completed the necessary 100 hours of training, and they run the Volunteer Reception Center “when they’re not in school,” according to Adriane LaRoza, executive director of Volunteer Services of Manatee County. In the wake of 2004’s Hurricane Charley, which left 17,000 people homeless, the students interviewed, registered, and deployed more than 5,000 volunteers.

The kind of awareness, empowerment, and responsibility built through the ManaTEENS program could be exhibited by teens everywhere. For $100 million, we could provide 100,000 students a Summer of Service and $500 college scholarships, helping them to put their lives on a positive trajectory and become a vital resource for their communities. It’s time for all parents who’ve struggled with their kids through the summer months between middle school and high school to get behind congressional efforts to help these kids help themselves and their communities.

Shirley Sagawa is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a national expert on child and youth policy.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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