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The New York program that helps at-risk kids do better in high school
Reduced mortality alone more than justifies the cost of the program one study finds, while another finds test score gaps reduced significantly. - photo by Eric Schulzke
At-risk youths who held a summer job may also improve their school test scores this year, a new National Bureau of Economic Research study finds.

The new NBER study reports that New York Citys Summer Youth Employment Project (SYEP) could close the race gap in high school tests by nearly 20 percent, while closing the poverty gap by nearly 45 percent.

SYEP started in 1963, making it the granddaddy of summer youth employment programs. Its also one of the largest such programs, employing up to 54,000 youths each summer.

Every spring, teenagers accepted for SYEP go through job readiness workshops and then fan out through the city to do entry-level jobs at government agencies, hospitals, law firms, museums and retail companies, to name a few.

SYEP lends itself to research because it can only serve about half of those who apply, and they are chosen randomly. Researchers can measures effects because they have an accidentally randomized control group.

And research done here has implications for copy-cat programs around the country. If a program works in New York, the theory goes, it can work anywhere.

The new NBER study also found significantly larger results for students who participated in SYEP more than one summer. The positive effects of a second summer, the report found, are large enough to eliminate or substantially reduce the race gap and the poverty gap.

SYEP has a fairly substantial effect, said Amy Schwartz, the lead researcher and a public policy professor at New York University. It could shrink the gap between black and white kids passing the exam by roughly one third.

Lives saved

Schwartzs study parallels a related study last year, which found that SYEP led to a 20 percent reduction in mortality and a 10 percent drop in incarceration among youths involved in the program. That study concluded that based on the lives saved alone, the program paid for itself.

The result doesnt surprise SYEP director Christopher Lewis. If you have someone over the summer not in school and not working, its a ripe opportunity for getting in trouble, Lewis said. You occupy them with a job opportunity and wages over the summer, and they arent getting into trouble.

It changes how you think about the costs and benefits of the program, said Alexander Gelber, a public policy professor at U.C. Berkeley and the lead author of last years study.

The effect is small in raw numbers, Gelber notes, but the impact in dollar value is large. The study estimates that the program saved 86 lives in the four student cohort years studied, from 2005 to 2008. Standard cost-benefit analysis pegs each of those lives at $9 million, leading to a benefits of $773 million.

Hard data

While the people at SYEP are pleased with the data, Lewis said, they are not really surprised.

SYEP participants attend workshops on how to be a better employee and how to manage their finances. They start thinking about their future, start seeing things more like an adult, Lewis said.

Lewis said they have seen SYEPs impact anecdotally for years.

One SYEP graduate is Bill Chong, now New Yorks commissioner for the Department of Youth and Community Development, which oversees the program. As a youth SYEP participant in 1973, Chong worked with a community group called Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in Chinatown and on a community beautification cleanup project.

A more prominent example is Damon John, co-founder of FUBU clothing line and now a leading figure on the ABC networks popular Shark Tank. John filmed PSAs for SYEP this year, and credits his first job as a teenager cleaning up city parks in New York with having a major impact on his adult success.

Still, Lewis is happy to have the data. "A lot of us here knew the program was getting these kinds of results," he said, "but it's good to have the hard data and hard numbers.