It’s back-to-school season, and 15-year-old Ethan (far left in the above photo) feels ready and full of a sense of confidence he built slowly but surely this past summer.
That’s because Ethan spent July and August busily working his summer job at Benjamin Franklin High School, where he joined in team-building activities, participated in restorative justice circles, and developed work readiness skills. He even took an academic course for credit to boot! His days consisted of challenges to solve, people to greet, and a never-ending stream of important work to be done—and Ethan wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Ethan is a participant of The Child Center of NY’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). An initiative of the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development, SYEP is the nation’s largest youth employment program, connecting NYC youth between the ages of 14 and 24 with career exploration opportunities and paid work experience. Through SYEP, participants explore different interests and career pathways, develop workplace habits and know-how, and engage in learning experiences that strengthen their social, civic, and leadership skills.
Brittany Dailey is the SYEP director at The Child Center, where she oversees SYEP programs at 10 schools. “When I started in 2019, we had 200 youths enrolled in our SYEP programs,” Brittany says. “This summer, we had 914 young people participating in SYEP.”
That figure includes 94 teens who are from asylum-seeking families. This is important, Brittany says, because these kids do not have Social Security cards, making it hard for them to find employment elsewhere. They often struggle financially and have faced hardships no child—or adult, for that matter—should have to face.
All 914 Child Center SYEP participants are between the ages of 14 and 21 and attend schools that The Child Center supports throughout the year. Those who are 14-15 years old, like Ethan, work on project-based lessons (PBLs) that focus on career readiness. For example, this summer they engaged in a Shark Tank-inspired PBL, through which they pitched products addressing social injustice. One participant created what he called “Bundles of Joy,” distributing baskets for people experiencing homelessness. Students learned how to pitch their ideas, write business proposals, and produce commercials. They made T-shirts with logos they created and explored social justice issues that ranged from climate change to LGBTQ+ rights to immigration and sold the t-shirts to support their cause.
Participants ages 16-21 were ready for real-world work experience. Through community partnerships, Brittany and her team placed participants with an array of local employers. Youth worked at restaurants and barber shops to get a feel for small business operations; the JFK Redevelopment Community Information Center to learn about careers in aviation; and the offices of New York State Senator Leroy Comrie and Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman to get an inside look at careers in public service.
New this year was an academic component to SYEP: Students had the opportunity to take an academic course for credit. This allowed teens to advance their scholastic goals while gaining important work readiness skills.
When the summer ends, participants are eligible for The Child Center’s Work, Learn & Grow programs, which help students make a smooth transition from high school to college and the “real” world by building college readiness, earning college credit, learning essential job readiness skills, and completing a paid internship.
“SYEP is important for so many reasons,” Brittany says. “It’s important because we don’t know why they need the money; some participants are supporting their families. We might think 100 dollars a week isn’t much, but it’s huge for an undocumented family, who may not be treated fairly by other employers who can take advantage of their vulnerable status. At 14 years old, these are the problems they have.
“It’s also important because now they’re not leaving high school not knowing what the work world is like. Through the internships, participants learn what they like, and even what they don’t like. They may discover they don’t ever want to work in a restaurant! They understand how taxes work. Teens like Ethan now know that they are capable of learning valuable skills and doing a job at a level of excellence that makes them proud. This is as crucial a part of their education as anything, and I love being a part of it.”