Report details how one county’s juvenile justice program effectively engages students

Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Road to Success Academies (RTSA), a comprehensive educational model for juvenile court schools that serve young people detained for extended periods of time, is successfully reigniting student engagement, according to a new study.

Centering Care and Engagement: Understanding Implementation of the Road to Success Academies (RTSA) in Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Schools, released Aug. 31 by University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for the Transformation of Schools, found that the interdisciplinary, project-based learning strategies utilized under the RTSA framework combined with trauma-informed practices and standards-based curriculum are advancing social-emotional learning as well as academic skills.

Addressing the trauma that incarcerated youth have experienced, be it prior to or during their incarceration, is the first step to ensuring children are able to heal before they’re actually able to learn, LACOE Superintendent Debra Duardo said during a webinar coinciding with the release of the report.

“Children don’t belong in jail … and when they are in jail, it’s because we’ve let them down. It’s the fact that our systems are not designed to identify families that are struggling early on — whether it’s poverty, lack of housing, lack of quality healthcare or even access to other basic needs, that’s often due to systemic racism. Ninety-nine percent of the children in our juvenile system are children of color,” Duardo said. “But while they are incarcerated, while we do have them, our goal is to do everything possible to provide them with the best education that we can give them.”

The report found both benefits and challenges to full RTSA implementation. Among the benefits: the model of instruction and intervention is associated with modest gains, and classroom observations and student interviews suggest high levels of student engagement and excitement about themes and topics explored in project-based learning.

“We know that when kids are engaged, they learn,” said Angela James, Center for the Transformation of Schools research director and co-author of the report. “But there are some intrinsic difficulties … [that are] important to consider, like the fact that for the most part, we don’t have children in these contexts for a full school year. They don’t enter in the fall and exit in the spring. Those are really important things to consider as we examine the impact of the model on the youth in these facilities.”

That level of student mobility makes the educational assessments inaccurate in terms of measuring how a child’s performance was impacted during their time at an RTSA campus.

“To actually ensure accountability for this context, we need to develop reporting systems that reflect the circumstances,” James said.

Other challenges include a need for educational services to be aligned and coordinated across multiple agencies, from probation to local school districts and college systems. Additionally, there is often tremendous variation in skill levels among students at each site at any given time.

State and local recommendations

The report includes recommendations for state and Los Angeles County leaders, specifically. However, as a requirement of Senate Bill 823, California began closing its three state-run youth detention centers in fall 2021 and is gradually shifting the responsibility of juvenile justice from the Department of Juvenile Justice to the state’s 58 counties. All state youth prisons are to be shut down by June 30, 2023.

Therefore, recommendations for Los Angeles may apply to county offices of education throughout the state as they work with other agencies in this transition. SB 823 calls on counties to:

  1. Provide and implement public health approaches to support positive youth development through long-term community-based approaches that can reduce crime
  2. Use evidence-based and promising practices and programs that improve the outcomes of youth and public safety
  3. Reduce the transfer of youth into the adult criminal justice system, allowing them to receive age-appropriate treatment and remain connected to their families and communities

Learn more about the bill and what other COEs are doing to address the needs of incarcerated youth retuning home in the fall 2021 issue of California Schools.

To support LACOE’s RTSA model, researchers recommend state leaders address the school-to-prison pipeline by providing targeted funding and supports for Black and Latino youth and communities across all 80 districts, but especially in districts of origin for higher numbers of court school students. The state should also take part in strengthening and incentivizing the pipeline for diverse and talented educators committed to the educational success of justice-involved youth, as well as creating appropriate monitoring and data accountability systems to inform educational progress and re-entry into traditional schools and the community.

Los Angeles County officials should, among other things:

  • Develop strong systems of administrative and system accountability and capacity across agencies to support student academic and social-emotional development, and physical and mental health.
  • Prioritize joint agency planning, capacity building and accountability related to the frequency and use of assessments to advance student learning, health and well-being
  • Establish data sharing agreements between LACOE and the Department of Mental Health and Probation