As the school year kicks into gear, it is often a time for reflecting back on summer. I can’t tell you how frequently I bump into students who tell me they were bored and up to “nothing really” over their breaks. With the work that I do, it is hard for this response to not remind me of the well-documented class divide between how summers and out-of-school time hours are typically spent. While teenagers of means are often packing in summer camps, travel, unpaid internships, or even good old-fashioned summer jobs, young people from low income families often lack those same opportunities.
It is even not as easy as it once was for teens to get a simple summer job, a problem connected to a decline in overall youth employment in this country. While 45 percent of teens ages 16-19 were employed in 2000, that number had declined to just 26 percent by 2011. In 2014, the summer job rate for 16 and 17 year olds was 20 percent, less than half what it was in 2000. White teens are also much likelier to have summer jobs than teens of color. 
In spite of these dismal statistics, my usual summer catch-up conversation might be different if I bumped into one of the more than 40 low income teenagers – rising juniors and seniors in Portland, Maine Public Schools and some out-of-school youth – who participated in the Gateway to Opportunity program this summer.
Gateway to Opportunity, or G2O, is a partnership between Goodwill Industries of Northern New England and the University of Southern Maine (USM) Cutler Institute’s Youth and Community Engagement Team. This year, G2O placed over 40 youth on more than 8 dynamic project teams with local nonprofit, government, and business partners, each of which was led by a USM undergraduate student team leader. The G2O experience offers promising glimpses of student-centered practices that extend beyond the walls of the schools and the traditional school year.
Learning that is Anytime, Anywhere
Even though G2O is a summer job for which youth get paid minimum wage, students were also offered the option of getting Extended Learning Credit through their home high schools. The program – with built-in reflection, twenty-first century skill-building, and workshops on career competencies like resume-writing and networking – easily met the minimum requirements of a high school Expanded Learning Opportunity. To acquire school credit, students generally need to have an advisor at their high school and document their learning in a journal and final presentation. Students can even work with their school to build on their G2O project to satisfy a new capstone requirement.
Eric Moynihan, JMG Pathways Coordinator at Portland High School, reflected that “in addition to the multitude of soft skills in which they needed to show proficiency during their summer session, [students] were afforded the opportunity to make valuable connections…gain insight on career possibilities and options,” as well as to apply lessons learned in the classroom to “real world situations that benefited the community.” According to Kristen Stacy, Goodwill Industries Program Coordinator for G2O, “the entire program is about reflecting and transferable skills.”
Learning that is Personalized
In applying for the program, students got to read descriptions of the different project teams and select their choices for how they wanted to spend the six weeks. All participants got their first or second choice so their time was spent on something interesting to them.
The tasks students undertook were far removed from the kinds of entry-level responsibilities typical of a summer job. In a project called “Books and Bubbles,” for example, students partnered with East End Community School to hold a children’s book drive that culminated in reading to kids at a laundromat while their parents got a free load of laundry.
Small teams of 4 to 5 students each allowed Team Leaders the flexibility and time to get to know their students, as well as their individual strengths and preferences. Youth would often specialize by taking on different roles within their team based on their interests.
Learning that is Student-Driven
For young people accustomed to taking direction from adults, it was initially quite shocking to have so much ownership over their experiences. One young man shared how he couldn’t get over how every morning when he showed up to the program, his Team Leader would turn to the teens and ask, “So, what are we going to do today?”
The program strove to build an environment that would help students feel such ownership. Super Team Lead Nyawal Lia shared how “both the host site supervisors and team leaders were trained in facilitation specifically and learned the difference between being a leader and a facilitator so they understood how to bring youth voice into the project.”
Devyn Howell, a senior at Portland High School, really liked the environment of G2O. “Being around people who are also new to the experience helps you rise to the call,” he said, contrasting the G2O experience to being in a traditional classroom where students may be afraid to step up. “The environment gives everybody the opportunity to do that.” Super Team Lead Lia reflected further: “From the beginning we made it clear that these are your projects and you guys are the leaders in this.”
Learning that is Competency-Based
Nikki Williams, G2O Project Director at the Cutler Institute, noted that the model “is so exciting because it creates a continuum of learning for young people from school through the summer.” Every young person involved in the program received an individualized performance assessment at the end. This process enabled students to see their skills and where they had room to grow.
Instead of just completing a required number of hours, students were supported to truly know their content areas inside and out. One example can be found in the crew that worked with the University of Southern Maine Communications Department to film a movie about the Youth Leadership Advisory Team, an advocacy group for youth in foster care. Students on that team spent their first few weeks learning about issues affecting youth in care, as well as critical competencies needed to make a film from start to finish. Once youth knew the issues and mastered technical skills like focusing a camera, recording audio, editing footage, and writing a script, they could produce the video for their final project.
Bringing it to Life
As our high schools in Portland and beyond continue to work through the gradual cultural and structural changes needed to implement student-centered learning, community-based initiatives like G2O can offer colorful insights into student-centered practices, as well as inspiration for what it looks like to make learning relevant, real, and rewarding beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.
 “Low income” here is used as short-hand proxy for the requirement that students in Gateway were eligible for free and reduced lunch in the Portland school system. There are many complications to this measure in particular when equated with being in poverty, although it is often all we have as a quick indicator of income level for students in public schools. See http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/30/379330001/true-or-false-free-and-reduced-price-lunch-poor