Courtesy: Los Angeles County Office of Education

Do you count on EdSource’s education coverage? If so, please make your donation today to keep us going without a paywall or ads.

At last count, there are about 400 youth in Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention facilities. These numbers are both a cause for concern and celebration and redoubled commitment.

Concern because too many young people remain at risk of falling into the justice system. Celebration because the current numbers represent historic lows brought on by years of advocacy and concerted efforts by county and state officials to place the priority on providing care as opposed to punishment for incarcerated young people. All children in the United States are entitled to quality public education, including these students. But as a society, we have often not fulfilled this educational obligation to the young people in these circumstances even before their detainment.

When children enter juvenile justice facilities, they start school in a manner far different from the typical fall “back to school” rituals. These students have been traumatized by their arrest as well as by being taken from their homes and communities. In many cases, these young people also carry the trauma of a life plagued by poverty, racism, and family and educational problems that long predate their entry into the juvenile justice system.

High-quality educational services are a critical component of redirecting youth toward a path of productive academic and social outcomes. For the last decade, the Los Angeles County Office of Education has worked with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, Department of Mental Health and other agencies to develop a systemic multiagency approach to juvenile justice that prioritizes care over punishment.  The shared goal of this approach is to support young people in gaining critical skills to help them navigate and overcome the trauma they have experienced in order to achieve success and well-being. To meet the educational needs of these students, the LA County Office of Education has developed the Road to Success Academies, a model that uses project-based learning to more deeply engage students in academic work that is relevant to their lives.

The educational model was designed to engage students who have typically been disconnected from learning and invite students to explore academic content in ways that acknowledge the trauma they face. Through culturally relevant topics and activities, the model empowers students to believe in themselves again and pursue a better future. Project themes such as discovery, healing and resilience provide opportunities for students to revisit what it means to have a voice. The deeper exploration of content offers a chance to reflect on what they have experienced, making the coursework more meaningful. Students share what they’ve learned during public exhibitions and with visitors. For many, this is the first time they connect personally to their education and engage as leaders. These educational experiences appeal to students’ interests, build their agency, and develop their self-confidence and self-efficacy as learners. The approach provides students with the hope they need to persevere and transform their lives.

Recent research from the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools affirms the intentional design and impactful delivery of this model. In interviews, students often expressed that compared with prior experiences in school, they had a far greater understanding of and interest in academic activities. The research findings also clearly expose challenges of the juvenile justice system that must be addressed in order to ensure that the ambitious, transformative educational goals of the model are fully met. Students in court schools arrive with dramatically varying levels of academic characteristics and family support, and spend highly variable lengths of time in these facilities. They disproportionately have learning disabilities and come from under-resourced schools and communities. Additionally, court schools, like school districts across the country, face significant and ongoing challenges in attracting and retaining educational staff, which impedes the continuous implementation of best practices. Arguably, the challenges of court schools are a distilled version of challenges facing urban districts in major cities everywhere.

But no matter how innovative this educational model is, it’s not an optimal context for children to receive an education. We must continue to improve and refine educational services to the dwindling numbers of system-involved youth in our care and advocate for improved educational services for similar youth before any system involvement, and upon release. A “care-first” approach must extend beyond juvenile justice facilities because academically engaged students are far less likely to offend. In order to interrupt the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline, we must prioritize delivering the type of caring, innovative, high-quality educational services utilized in this academic model.

•••

 Angela James is the research director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools. Debra Duardo is superintendent of schools, Los Angeles County Office of Education.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

Do you count on EdSource’s reporting daily? Make your donation today to our year end fundraising campaign by Dec. 31st to keep us going without a paywall or ads.

Share Article

Comments (4)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Victor 2 months ago2 months ago

    It is disingenuous for Superintendent Duardo to tout the quality of her academic program when the LACOE-run schools have been subject to repeated complaints and investigations during her tenure. The latest study by the LA County Probation Oversight Commission in March 2022 found that Duardo's schools "lacked a culture of learning" and that students were disengaged because of the "carceral setting, poor quality and inconsistency of classroom instruction, and the failure to integrate the non-teacher … Read More

    It is disingenuous for Superintendent Duardo to tout the quality of her academic program when the LACOE-run schools have been subject to repeated complaints and investigations during her tenure. The latest study by the LA County Probation Oversight Commission in March 2022 found that Duardo’s schools “lacked a culture of learning” and that students were disengaged because of the “carceral setting, poor quality and inconsistency of classroom instruction, and the failure to integrate the non-teacher credentialed adults in classrooms into instructional planning.” http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/commissionpublications/report/1120919_EducationReportFinal-Accepted03-14-22.pdf

    Similarly, in 2021, the Attorney General entered into a settlement that ordered LACOE to correct egregious and systemic violations of the Education Code and other laws. https://oag.ca.gov/sites/default/files/LACOE%20Stipulated%20Judgment%20%28with%20Stip%20Entry%20of%20Final%20Judgment%29.pdf

    Instead of fixing these problems, Debra Duardo is here congratulating herself and chasing headlines while youth who are incarcerated continue to suffer.

  2. Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

    I agree completely with the sentiments expressed here but I'm left wondering what specific "project-based learning," "culturally relevant content and activities," and "deeper exploration of content" and "public exhibitions," etc etc would work best with these students. Having taught a few of them myself, I wanted to do what I could for them but they came and went, so I'm curious what the authors recommend. A mix of academic, career tech (e.g. building trades, automotive, … Read More

    I agree completely with the sentiments expressed here but I’m left wondering what specific “project-based learning,” “culturally relevant content and activities,” and “deeper exploration of content” and “public exhibitions,” etc etc would work best with these students. Having taught a few of them myself, I wanted to do what I could for them but they came and went, so I’m curious what the authors recommend. A mix of academic, career tech (e.g. building trades, automotive, computers) and socio-emotional self-advocacy skills? The curriculum really matters here.

  3. monie de wit 2 months ago2 months ago

    One thing that would help turn this around is to teach students how to read based on science of reading. Students who are proficient readers by end of third are less likely to drop out or be justice involved. Reading is key to success and opens doors. Students with learning differences are disproportionally represented in juvenile system because their needs were not met in elementary. Many districts offer too little intervention too … Read More

    One thing that would help turn this around is to teach students how to read based on science of reading. Students who are proficient readers by end of third are less likely to drop out or be justice involved. Reading is key to success and opens doors. Students with learning differences are disproportionally represented in juvenile system because their needs were not met in elementary. Many districts offer too little intervention too late. And far too many districts are still clinging to a failed approach in reading called balanced literacy that basically teachers students to guess at a word from contextual clues or photos.

    Science of reading is shown on MRI to activate a part of the brain responsible for sound letter correspondence. Balance literacy does not activate this critical part. Without the ability to read far too many go from the education system to the justice system. Changing how we teach reading in California is long overdue and the state should ban balanced literacy like 22 other states including Mississippi, which has high poverty rates but is now making great gains in test scores … well ahead of California.

  4. Rose Dunn 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a long time volunteer in the juvenile justice system I have enjoyed being the audience for students projects. We have not been allowed entry for a couple of years due to Covid. You could use many more volunteers. Please let me know if and how I can help.