If you had a typical middle-class childhood, you probably remember summer as a time for amusement parks, swimming lessons, slumber parties and family vacations. June, July and August represented life at its best -- long nights that were all about fireflies and barbecues instead of homework and bedtime.
And then, shortly after Labor Day, all of that carefree innocence came to a screeching halt. No wonder the words "back to school" were considered three of the most depressing words in the English language.
For millions of poor kids in the U.S. today, the reality of summer is very different from that middle-class ideal. Unmoored from the structure of a school day and physically removed from all the supports that school can provide, too many young people spend the summer months feeling hopeless, lonely and adrift. For them, the words "back to school" suggest the start of something good, not the end.
So, do you know what your students did last summer? Here are a few of the possibilities:
1. They went hungry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 16 million U.S. kids live in a household that lacks consistent availability of nutritious food. During the school year, food insecurity is somewhat mitigated by the availability of free or reduced-cost school lunches. But research shows that during the summer, participation in federal nutrition programs can drop by 85 percent.
2. They got pregnant. Even after a 50 percent decline in the teen pregnancy rate since 1990, more than 305,000 babies were born to teenage mothers last year, according to federal statistics, and nearly 90 percent of those mothers were unwed. Assuming a constant rate of births throughout the year, at least 76,000 teens got pregnant this summer, putting the rest of their school year in serious question.
3. They were turned down for a job. For older students hoping to find a job, summer can be a time of disappointment and rejection. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall youth unemployment reached 16 percent last summer, and the unemployment rate for black youth topped 28%. The lack of a summer job can be devastating to a teen hoping to contribute to the family wage. Moreover, for a student who feels trapped in poverty, this kind of rejection can reinforce a sense of hopelessness: What's the point of finishing school if there are no jobs to be had?
4. They had a run-in with the law. In 2011, the most recent year for which Justice Department statistics are available, approximately 1.47 million juveniles under the age of 18 were arrested for a crime. More than 90 percent of these crimes were non-violent in nature, and academic research suggests that such crime tends to increase when school is not in session. Again, without the structure and accountability of a school day, many students make a mistake with long-lasting negative implications.
5. They experienced homelessness. Each year, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, approximately 380,000 youth under the age of 18 will endure an episode of homelessness lasting a week or more. Meanwhile, only 50,000 young people each year get help from a targeted homeless youth program. For the other 330,000, school might be the only consistent place to find refuge and support -- making the summer months especially scary and difficult.
There are a lot of big numbers in the preceding paragraphs, but statistics tell only part of the story. The real impact is individual and personal -- students who suffered setbacks over the summer and return to the classroom with scars that no one can see. Oftentimes you'll find them at the periphery, barricaded behind an emotional wall they've put up to protect themselves from additional pain.
Every school district offers services for helping these kids, whether it's a staff counselor or a professional resource coordinator like Communities In Schools. We're constantly on the lookout for students who need our help, but we need teachers, principals, coaches, bus drivers and other caring adults to point us in the right direction.
This fall, when you see a student struggling with the "back to school" transition, take a moment to lend an ear and ask some questions, then alert somebody who's in a position to help. When at-risk students understand that school is a refuge as well as a requirement, they're much more likely to stick it out all the way to graduation.