“I really don’t have the privilege of having a job for pocket change,” says Clarah Leite. “I have to make sure my dad’s okay with his bills, and if he isn’t, I’ve got him. And I also have my own bills, my phone bill.”
Leite is a 16-year-old student at Somerville High School, where she’s taking advanced classes and trying to maintain a high GPA. She’d eventually like to go to college (maybe to study psychology; she isn’t sure, but she likes the social sciences). She also works part time at Somerville’s Center for Teen Empowerment, where she helps plan their youth programs and events. The daughter of Brazilian immigrants, for whom she’s a translator, Leite uses her (limited) free time to read and write. She’s a fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
Balancing schoolwork and an after-school job, maintaining a social life and setting aside personal time, planning for the future while trying to assure that your family is financially stable in the present—isn’t that a lot for a 16 year old to handle?
“Oh my god,” she says, with an exasperated laugh. “I’m going to be honest and say there are some days where I just sit on my bed and I cry, because it’s like, ‘What am I doing?’”
According to Center for Teen Empowerment Program Director Danny McLaughlin, Leite’s story is common among the city’s teens. “The Somerville population and the youth population are exact opposites of each other,” McLaughlin says. “Most of our youth are coming from extreme low-income families.”
Himself a lifelong Somerville resident, McLaughlin has seen firsthand the way the city has changed over the last several decades. Many of those changes are for the better, especially when it comes to the employment opportunities available to city youth. The shops and restaurants at Assembly Row intentionally and aggressively hire Somerville residents, many of whom are teens. The Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program matches youth with positions in city departments or with private employers, and City of Somerville Human Services Director Nancy Bacci, who has managed the program since 2007, says it’s gotten bigger every year since Mayor Curtatone first took office in 2003.
There’s also the robust—and growing—Career and Technical Education Program at Somerville High School, which gives students the opportunity to work in one of 13 different fields, from metalwork to dentistry, before they graduate. Director of Career and Technical Education Leo DeSimone says that participation in the program has tripled over the last five years, and today, about 550 students—or 45 percent of the overall high school population—are enrolled.
The employment opportunities for teens may be better, but “economically, their lives aren’t improving,” McLaughlin explains. The city’s economic status has improved in recent decades, and he says there’s an impression from folks outside of Somerville that people who live here must have a good chunk of change. That’s not necessarily the case; McLaughlin says Teen Empowerment’s Somerville site employs more low-income students than its sites in Roxbury or Dorchester, according to intake forms filled out by the teens at the start of employment.
“It’s crazy that the city’s improved so much, and we do have these jobs, and we do have these great services,” McLaughlin says, “and it’s still tough for a lot of the kids.”
“There are too many teens in Somerville who have to work. That is, I think, a real problem,” agrees Ward 4 School Committee member Andre Green. Green says that as it becomes increasingly expensive to live in this city, it’s also becoming increasingly difficult for teens to find their place. Many, like Leite, work one or more jobs to supplement their families’ income.
Green is a huge supporter of the high school’s “simply phenomenal” vocational program, but he’d like to see more infrastructure that supports the city’s young people. That includes resources like flexible school scheduling to accommodate those who work and mental health support for stressed-out, struggling teens. “Somerville’s politicians love to talk about how 40 percent of Somerville’s residents are between the ages of 21 and 34,” he adds, “and increasingly, those are the residents for whom we are designing and building things.” More broadly, he points to legislation like State Rep. Denise Provost’s Education Equity for All Act, which would “provide high school graduates equal access to in-state tuition rates and financial aid in the higher education system.”
If there’s one thing that Green, McLaughlin and DeSimone agree on, it’s that Somerville’s teens really want to succeed. “They’re hard workers, these kids,” McLaughlin says. “It’s actually amazing how motivated they are to look for and find jobs.” DeSimone says he consistently gets positive feedback from the employers who participate in the Career and Technical Education Program. “The kids in Somerville high school are good kids—they are—and they understand hard work and work ethic,” he says.
“It is hard for me to overstate how impressive Somerville’s teens are,” adds Green. “They are insightful, they are hardworking, they are kind and compassionate.” He’s confident that, given the right tools and opportunity, Somerville’s teens will take those resources and run with them.
“I love being a school committee member,” he says with a chuckle, “but I am pretty confident that if you picked a random Somerville High School student, they would do a better job.”