'Summer 16' initiative to ease access to programs for Pittsburgh-area youths

Reading Warrior and Westinghouse Academy senior Giordan Dixon, 16, of Highland Park, sits for a portrait after a press conference announcing the launch of a youth summer activity campaign for local children at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on Monday, March 21, 2016. Dixon works with Pittsburgh area children, helping them to learn to read through Reading Warriors, which employs high school students to mentor elementary school children.
Reading Warrior and Westinghouse Academy senior Giordan Dixon, 16, of Highland Park, sits for a portrait after a press conference announcing the launch of a youth summer activity campaign for local children at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on Monday, March 21, 2016. Dixon works with Pittsburgh area children, helping them to learn to read through Reading Warriors, which employs high school students to mentor elementary school children.
Photo by Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, March 21, 2016, 11:30 p.m.

Almost all his friends had begun to read, but Giordan Dixon just wasn't getting it.

Dixon, then an elementary school student, recalled sharing his embarrassment about falling behind academically with his mother, who promptly devoted several hours a week to reading with him and taking him to the library.

Dixon — now 16 and poised to graduate from Westinghouse Academy in Homewood — has spent the past two years as a “reading warrior,” a part-time job tutoring students in grades K-5 at Woolslair Elementary School in Lawrenceville.

“I had a support system, but I know some kids don't,” said Dixon, who plans to attend Community College of Allegheny County for a year before pursuing a degree in music production at Duquesne University. “I want to do my part to improve their skills and help them out.”

The reading warrior role is among hundreds of minimum-wage positions subsidized by taxpayers, corporations and private funders through “Learn and Earn,” a city and countywide summer youth jobs program that has exploded in size in recent years, from 300 participants ages 14 to 21 in 2014 to almost 2,000 last year.

The youth employment program is a piece of a broader initiative announced Monday by public officials, nonprofit groups and educational providers.

Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald joined Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, at Carnegie Library's East Liberty branch in presenting a coordinated effort to improve access to high-quality summer programs.

“There are a lot of kids in this city that go to space camp. They go on two-week vacations with their family. They take advantage of our museums,” Peduto said. “Then we have a whole different Pittsburgh, where kids basically stay in their house all summer long because it's dangerous, where kids get involved in activities they shouldn't.

“When we talk about these two Pittsburghs, what we're doing today is building a bridge between them,” the mayor added. “We're giving every child that wants an opportunity a chance to do something great this summer.”

The goal is to engage 16,000 children and young adults in summer programs countywide — a 33 percent increase from the estimated 12,000 youths who participated in such programs last summer, said LaTrenda Sherrill, deputy chief of education in Peduto's office.

The initiative — dubbed “Summer 16: Dream! Explore! Do!” — aims to better coordinate providers to serve youths more efficiently and to reach more of them. A new website, pghsummer16.pittsburghpa.gov, includes a directory of available programs to make it easier for parents to find options.

Collaboration by hundreds of providers running summer programs — from day camps to moonlit nature walks — will enable the region to gauge the needs of its children more precisely, rather than each program and funder operating in silos, said Patrick Dowd, executive director for Allies for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Getting providers to work together will help ensure “there's not too many programs in one geographic area and not enough elsewhere,” said D'Ann Swanson, senior program officer at The Grable Foundation, which doled out $3.4 million in grants last year related to after-school and summer youth programs.

The best estimates suggest families in Allegheny County enroll children in after-school programs at higher rates than the rest of the state and nation. During the school year, about 28 percent of students participate in such programs countywide, or nearly 53,000, compared with 19 percent across Pennsylvania and 17 percent nationwide, data from the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance show.

Yet demand still outpaces supply — by nearly 812,000 children statewide and an estimated 95,000 in Allegheny County, according to the 2014 surveys.

Research suggests that effective youth programs help children avoid the so-called “summer slide,” and improve how they fare on a slew of metrics: from attendance and test scores in school to the likelihood of joblessness or incarceration later in life.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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