THE ISSUE: The Summer Youth Employment Program. THE IMPACT: Summer work programs for youths have benefits that are far-reaching, organizers say and studies have shown. They can keep children away from violence, teach them life skills and how to work as a team, which ultimately benefits the community in the long run.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington made unannounced visits Thursday to several sites where students are working in the Summer Youth Employment Program and asked about their experiences. The program provides paid jobs to 120 Pine Bluff residents ages 16 to 21 for six weeks in the summer. Washington said she is evaluating the program by meeting with the students.

The Pine Bluff City Council in June accepted a budget adjustment of more than $15,000 to add to the program. Stephen Bronskill, a former aide to Washington, led an effort to raise funds from the business community to increase paid slots in the program, which typically employs about well over 100 young people. The extra funding, which totaled $15,229, allowed 15 more to take part in the summer jobs program.

The city received contributions of more than $1,000 each from Liberty Utilities, Sissy's Log Cabin, Washington Construction, Agents Mutual Insurance, ASC, St. Luke, Eighth Avenue Missionary Baptist, Codney Washington and Skateland, and Jefferson Regional Medical Center. State Farm, First Assembly of God, Erick and Versie Biley, Ivan Whitfield and Irene Holcomb contributed between $100 and $570 each.

Washington or a representative of her office visited students in the program Thursday at the City of Pine Bluff Quality of Life Division, the Police and Youth Camp at Southeast School, Southeast Arkansas College's Library, Targeting Our People's Priorities with Service, the Merrill Community Center and Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter's Office.

“Each time I have been here I have been impressed,” Washington said. “I know for sure this is a program we should continue. I even talked with many parents on my visits. I came in the early morning. On my way through I saw how the order was with dropping kids off. Many parents spoke to me about how they wish the program could be longer.”

A National Summer Learning Association study found that while the achievement gap stays roughly the same during the school year, it widens during the summer as low-income children struggle to find food and don't have access to activities such as summer camp. By the fifth grade, this “summer learning loss” can leave low-income students 2.5 to 3 years behind their peers.

Studies of summer youth employment programs in Chicago and New York that employed 41,650 youth in 2007 found reductions in crime and boosts in academic achievements for students who attended, according to the NSLA. The students' average age ranged from 14-21, about 90 percent of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch. Twenty percent previously had records of “arrest or victimization.” They worked 25 hours per week for eight weeks, earning $8.25 per hour.

Violent crime arrests among 1,634 of the participating students between grades 8-12 in Chicago dropped 43 percent over 16 months, according to one of the studies. “High-risk” participants in the New York program attended 4-5 more school days than the previous school year, with the greatest gains seen in the most vulnerable, according to the other study. Other studies found benefits from development of job skills to improve future employability.

Earlier in the summer, Washington asked children to recite a poem and told them she would return to test them. She asked students to recite the poem from memory and upon their not knowing it she recited it.

She asked students to share what they have learned during their summer employment program.

“The first time I came all the students were in the gymnasium and that's when I extended the challenge for them to memorize the poem,” Washington said.

Washington instructed counselors to demonstrate the behavior they want the younger students to show. She told students to speak clearly and remove their hands from in front of their mouths.

“We have to be the change we wish to see,” Washington said.

City of Pine Bluff summer youth coordinator Shelia Brown oversaw the student workers in the program at PAY Camp. She is also a counselor with the Pine Bluff School District. The summer youth employment program gives job opportunities in a controlled environment, Brown said.

“It helps the city and the economy when our citizens learn how to have work skills and they meet professionals,” Brown said. “We have a lot of different work sites around the city.”

The police officers and counselors did not expect Washington to visit their sites and they operated as they would normally, Brown said. Children were playing basketball at PAY Camp and a group of girls discussed how to behave properly.

About 500 students applied for the 120 jobs, Brown said. They are interviewed and selected based on their skills in performing the particular jobs.

“We fill the spots the best we can,” she said.

Pine Bluff Police Lt. Hosea Thompson coordinates the PAY Camp and welcomed Washington on her tour. The students learn to be punctual, to dress appropriately and to conduct oneself professionally so they will be prepared to enter the workforce, he said.

Elsewhere in Pine Bluff, Shariah Stubbs was working through the program in the prosecuting attorney's office. A 2017 graduate of Watson Chapel High School, Stubbs said she is learning computer skills, communications skills and professional presentation. Her first paid job consisted of filing papers and moving papers to the clerk's office.

“I'd like to thank the city of Pine Bluff for giving me the opportunity,” Stubbs, who will enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, said.

Dee Clay, a youth coordinator with the city of Pine Bluff, was overseeing Stubbs and deemed the program a success.