Monday, June 25, 2012

Now and Then: The History of DC's Summer Youth Employment Program

President Reagan hands over a check for SYEP to Mayor-for-life Marion Barry. PhotoCredit: Washington Post

The One City Summer Youth Employment Program starts today (as do most of the District's summer camps!)and it seems only appropriate given the number of District youth that have gone through SYEP over the years that we dedicate today's blog post to the program.

For those of you that need to brush up on your SYEP history, the program was established in 1979 by then- Mayor Marion Barry. Back in the day, SYEP served 22,000 exclusively low-income young people and was funded by the federal government. Flash forward to 2012 and SYEP serves upwards of 14,000 young people ages 14-21, from a variety of economic backgrounds almost exclusively with  local dollars (the 2011 program cost the District roughly $11.5 million). Given that the District now pays SYEP's full tab, one would hope that the program would have made leaps and bounds since its inception in '79, but this is not necessarily the case.

But why do I say not necessarily? Because the 2012 SYEP will operate absent a clear mission, articulated youth outcomes or vision for the future. A clear and targeted mission, vision and outcomes framework are the the foundation of any good program and SYEP's current lack of all three has proved to severely limit DC's capacity to effectively use youth workforce funding for years.

For example: Studies of SYEP have noted that SYEP host site supervisors and participating youth do report that young people benefit from taking part in the program. Cited benefits have included: exposure to the world of work, soft skills acquisition, career exploration, college and career planning etc. However ,SYEP currently lacks an outcomes framework which means none of these benefits have been clearly established as intended outcomes of participating in the program. What's more SYEP currently serves 12,000 youth whose work readiness, work experience and levels of educational attainment vary widely. The city doesn't know what skills and behaviors are the most important to teach  nor have they formulated a mission for the program that would specify which population of young people should be targeted with SYEP.

If we haven't established clear goals and outcomes for a program, collecting data on program effectiveness and quality becomes awfully tricky.Furthermore, without performance tracking  the city cannot make an informed decision about whether its yearly SYEP expenditure is cost-effective or if these local workforce dollars would be better targeted to another intervention.

Perhaps the one of the most troubling revelations about SYEP's current issues around system-wide quality and performance is that through at least some of its history SYEP has had articulated outcomes and a target population and performance monitoring. In the1990's SYEP slots funded by the federal program required individual assessments, data collection and evaluation. The impact of the federal  program could be measured from year to year because pre- and post-program assessments were mandated and these assessments captured performance data. Unfortunately when federal funding for these measures went away, so to did attention to outcomes and performance measurement.

Clearly SYEP has undergone quite a bit of change since 1979, but we still have a long way to go if we as a city want to make this program outcomes driven and cost-effective. The first step in achieving this goal is undoubtedly the formulation of a targeted mission and outcomes framework, but there are other steps and interim measures that could also be taken to affect positive change within SYEP.

For more information on reforming SYEP, check out DCAYA's 2011 Summer Youth Employment Program Report Card.

For more information on DCAYA's Youth Employment work, contact Anne Abbott, DCAYA Policy Analyst.

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