11/08/2010 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Summer in November -- Can a Summer of Service Battle Summer Slide?

As the days get shorter and the last of the leaves fall, summer seems far away. But this week, hundreds of experts and educators are meeting in Indianapolis at the National Conference on Summer Learning to talk about what happens to too many kids over the summer -- they slide backwards in their academic skills.

I remember summers as a time for swimming or sunbathing, holed up with a book, or I admit, watching television. Nowadays, many kids, particularly those whose parents have the resources, spend at least several weeks in enrichment camps, honing their artistic or athletic skills, or even advancing their academic ones. I sentenced my own 10 year old to two weeks of math camp last summer as a complement to the baseball, basketball, and tennis camps he prefers.

But for millions of kids, summer is a setback to school success. According to the National Summer Learning Association, the "summer slide" leaves students two months behind where they ended the year in reading and math. In fact, more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.

The antidote is not necessarily more hours in the classroom. Summer is a chance for youth to do what time, physical, and curricular constraints don't let them do during the regular school year.

An idea I've been promoting for a long time is to make the summer a time of service for young teens. Because of the critical nature of the middle-school years, I am convinced a focus on students undergoing this important transitional period may be as beneficial developmentally as it is practical.

Working families are often hard-pressed to pay for supervision for young teenagers during the summer, but government funding for child care programs focuses on younger age groups. Summer school is often only for those who are struggling, not those who want to expand their horizons. Federal law prohibits young teens from working, and older teens have the highest unemployment rate of any age group. As a result, most young people making the difficult transition from middle to high school have no organized activities during periods when they are out of school, and many are left unsupervised, at risk of engaging in potentially harmful activities.

The establishment of a "Summer of Service" rite for young Americans of all backgrounds could help them find a sense of purpose at a pivotal age, hone their civic engagement skills, and expose them to role models in the community. It might even help combat summer slide.

Imagine what such a rite might look like. At age 13, when young teens are leaving middle school for high school, they might spend four weeks of their summer engaged in an intensive service-learning project, working in teams led by older youths, young adults, or even community "elders." This service would be an expectation but not a requirement, and community groups might offer options that would appeal to a wide range of interests.

I was pleased that a "Summer of Service" demonstration program was included in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, thanks to the leadership of Innovations in Civic Participation. As a result, last summer young teens scoured beach picnic areas in Bradenton, Florida, for broken glass, transformed a vacant lot in Philadelphia into a community park, and launched a campaign in Alexandria, Virginia, to discourage disposing of medicines in the sewage system.

In Seattle, a team of youth, supervised by AmeriCorps members, became part of the city's redevelopment of Othello Park, a hotbed of gang activity that kept residents away. In fact, most of the youth lived in the neighborhood but had never used the park. To discourage crime and make the landscape more welcoming, the youth cleared invasive blackberry bushes (which shielded spaces for criminals to congregate) and laid fresh mulch to protect native trees. They also provided feedback on the park's redevelopment plan on ways to increase the park's youth appeal.

Despite the backbreaking work performed by many young participants, all were interested in serving another season in the program. And the vast majority indicated that if they were not participating in SOS, they would be bored, watching television, or hanging out with friends.

While small, the Summer of Service program could be scaled up in the future to serve the needs of communities and young people across the United States. To help with summer slide, these programs could incorporate cross-age tutoring as an activity, where the youth read with younger kids, play math-related games, or work together on a service-learning activity.

Developing a national system to enable all young people to participate in service as a rite of passage would be possible if the system were built on the existing infrastructure of service and youth programs. It could be integrated into summer camps, community-based youth organizations, youth corps, AmeriCorps programs, or schools interested in service-learning.

Over time, a summer of service before high school could become a rite of passage -- enabling young people to enter their teenage years with a positive experience that reinforces their connections to the community, enlivens their education, and strengthens their personal and civic values. At the same time, communities across America might find an important new resource in their own backyards -- young people who are ready to serve, if only they are asked.