Francesca Martinez, left, and Alexis Noa
Francesca Martinez, left, and Alexis Noa participated in the city's Summer Youth Employment Program in 2008.

Summer break gave way to the world of work for tens of thousands of teenagers today with the start of the city’s annual youth employment program.

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott kicked off this year’s employment season today at Queens Botanical Gardens, which is employing 35 of the 31,700 youth enrolling in summer work or training programs.

The city’s Summer Youth Employment Program has long been a model for other cities trying to keep teenagers occupied and productive during the dog days of summer. New Yorkers between the ages of 14 and 21 are selected by lottery to take on seven-week paid internships with community organizations. Since the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development took over the program in 2003, SYEP participants have also received educational programming about health, career, college, and financial literacy.

Participants don’t have to be enrolled in school, but those who are reap academic benefits, according to a team of New York University researchers who followed 2007′s SYEP 36,000 applicants in grades 8 through 11 through the following year. In a policy brief released today, the researchers conclude that students randomly selected for SYEP positions attend, on average, two more days of school the following year than students who applied for SYEP jobs but were not selected.

The benefits were even larger for students who had been frequently absent in the past and larger than that for students over 16 who had attended school less than 95 percent of the time in the previous year, the researchers found. Those students took and passed required Regents exams in math and English more often than students who had not been picked for SYEP.

The results suggest that taking on a job can stem the phenomenon that some educators and researchers call the “summer slide”: academic regression that takes place when classes are not in session. One estimate says students lose the equivalent of two months of instruction in math and reading between June and September.

“The research is clear that summer learning loss disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable low-income students, which is why it is so important that we continue to support our city’s summer jobs programs and pilot new initiatives,” Walcott said in a statement today.

One of the new initiatives, Summer Quest, aims to provide summer instruction and enrichment for elementary and middle school students who struggled on their state tests, but not so much that they were required to attend summer school. Twelve South Bronx schools are working with community groups to pilot the program, which Walcott announced in April.

The other new program is for students at high schools that offer hands-on training in specific industries. The first set of 100 “Bank of America Career and Technical Education Summer Scholars” will take on internships in the information technology field.

All together, the three programs are enrolling 31,700 youth this summer. That’s still over 25 percent smaller than it was 2008, when more than 43,000 teenagers and young adults held jobs through SYEP alone.

But with SYEP bankrolled largely with city, state, and federal funding, several consecutive years of shrinking budgets took a toll. To launch the new programs, the Department of Education and Department of Youth and Community Development cobbled together donations from nearly 20 private foundations and companies.