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Fixing D.C.'s Broken Summer Programs

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Maggie Riden, executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates which represents 130 nonprofits that work with youth.
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Maggie Riden, executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates which represents 130 nonprofits that work with youth.

Every year, thousands of D.C. children take part in some type of summer program, whether it’s through summer school, summer jobs or summer camps.

Maggie Riden, the executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, which represents 130 nonprofits that work with children, says figuring out exactly how many were taking part was difficult to determine.

“No agency was tracking that information in a consistent format, or collecting or keeping that information,” she says. “So we could say 2,500 to 3,500 students touched any number of systems, but the extent to which they touched them, or if they returned was impossible to track.”

Riden says it was a “disparate, shotgun approach to planning a summer.”

Problems with the District's youth summer programs left more than 15,000 young people without much to do during the long summer months.

She admits the city’s summer programs are “service rich and systems poor.” She also says there are number of high quality organizations, but they tend to get lost in individual agency silos. “Being able to break down and understand how these component parts are working has been a huge impetus behind the summer planning initiative.”

Creating better summer programs

That changed last year, when 28 government agencies and 80 community partners began working together as a team. They spent approximately $25 million and served 23,000 students. They did something they hadn’t done before: they set goals such as workforce development and academic achievement to health and safe behaviors and family involvement.

They also thought more strategically about the parts of the city that needed services the most, mapping crime data with other social and behavioral information such as teen pregnancy rates and academic outcomes. That information was compared with a map showing the locations of schools, libraries, and recreation centers. Once they had all that data, they identified areas to bring in programs.

“If you look at St. Elizabeth’s campus, where most of our homeless families are housed, there aren’t a lot of community organizations, but there is a lot of need,” says Riden. “Through this planning initiative, parents could have a parenting class, and students could have enrichment activities.”

Riden also says a Department of Health mobile unit sent out into the community could help draw more people to those services in the future.

Using summer programs to close the academic gap

Riden says many of the problems that plagued the summer programs in previous years, such as not paying people and employing students who are not from the District, have largely been addressed.

“Just providing a warehouse where young people spend six weeks of the summer without learning any employment skills, letting alone being modeled what an appropriate or meaningful work environment would look like — a number of those elements have been addressed,” she says. “We’re not hearing the same levels of stress, frustration or anger from youth.”

But Riden emphasizes there is room for growth, and this year, they’re going to ask leaders of summer programs to collect data measuring how well they’re serving kids and ensure quality.

Riden says she would like to see more summer programs focusing on academics, because summer is a critical time to help students catch up. “The District has most significant achievement gap in the nation when it comes to low, middle and high income students. We know that students in a middle or upper income home are likely to make academic gains over summer. A lower income student loses months of academic gains, which means by fifth grade, students could be 2.5 years behind in reading and 1.5 years behind a peer in math.”

Using the summer programs to address that gap, Riden says, could be a real game changer for the city’s children.


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