COMMENTARY: We can do more to provide high-quality education to students in juvenile detention

Courtesy: UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools

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 towards 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 multi-agency 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 to 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 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, and high-quality educational services utilized in this academic model.


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

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