Road To Success Academies: Transforming Education for Students in the Juvenile Justice System

Focused Area

Improving School Climate for Youth-At-Risk

Relevance to Focused Area

Students in juvenile justice systems across the country achieve at levels far below their peers. Many enter the system with histories of chronic academic failure and truancy. As a result, they tend to have low literacy skills, minimal content knowledge, and little to no credits completed toward high school graduation. Often these students also carry the burden of personal trauma. Their unmet socio-emotional and health care needs leave them unprepared to engage in the school setting. When they exit juvenile facilities they are often far below grade level, lacking a diploma or GED, and unequipped to rejoin society.

Recognizing the need to change the status quo, Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) has seized the opportunity to aggressively reform the juvenile incarceration experience. As the largest juvenile justice system in the nation, Los Angeles County has both great responsibility and great capacity for leadership and innovation.

In 2010, LACOE launched the Road To Success Academy (RSTA) model at the two camp schools for girls, Scott and Scudder, as a fresh approach to motivating and engaging students at high risk who have not succeeded in traditional classroom settings.

Primary Strand

Academic Achievement & School Leadership

Relevance to Primary Strand

In 2007, The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors formed a multiagency Comprehensive Educational Reform Committee, headed by LACOE’s Superintendent Arturo Delgado, to revamp the educational program and create a charter school “look-alike” at Scott-Scudder tailored to the circumstantial needs of the young women. LACOE leadership assembled a team of stakeholders charged with developing the new approach. The team included teachers, administrators, counselors, board members, union representatives, partner agencies (Probation, Mental Health, Health), correctional education experts, and community advocates.

The team members conducted extensive research and site visits nationwide to find an effective school model. They reviewed curricular models at public, private, and charter schools. No one model fully fit the student population, so the team fashioned their own, borrowing from some curricular methodologies (project-based learning), character building protocols, and healing talking circles.

What emerged is a unique, innovative, and exemplary approach to delivering the required standards-based high school curriculum in nontraditional ways that are engaging and motivating the youth educated in LACOE’s Juvenile Court Schools.

RTSA’s goals are to reduce recidivism and successfully transition students back into their communities as productive, contributing citizens with a new focus on education, enabled to finishing high school, and moving on to college and careers.

Five key educational objectives are set for students: increased understanding, retention, and application of general concepts; development of multiple perspectives, points of view, and values; increased ability to make decisions, think critically and creatively, and synthesize knowledge beyond the disciplines; promotion of cooperative learning and a better attitude toward oneself as a learner and as a meaningful member of a community; and increased motivation.

Educational techniques such as scaffolding are used to guide students at different academic levels to access the new curriculum, make literacy and numeracy gains, and explore career options. Each student is offered an individualized program based on her academic level that sets high standards and expectations for achievement and explores career options.

Brief Program Description

Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Road To Success Academy (RTSA) is an award-winning model used to educate incarcerated youth through a Thematic, Interdisciplinary, Project-Based curriculum that is tailored to students’ socio-emotional needs and promotes motivation and engagement for students who have not succeeded in traditional classroom settings.


In this workshop, participants will explore how student achievement is reached when academic mindsets are cultivated through relevant and meaningful curriculum and experiences that value student interests and connect to their lives. Participants will explore how the elements of the RTSA model can be incorporated into their school’s curriculum.

The Program & Curriculum

The RTSA model uses project-based learning to engage students and challenge them to exceed the California core curriculum standards. It employs a thematic, interdisciplinary approach, which frames essential questions within discrete learning modules, inviting students to explore content in direct and meaningful ways.

RTSA features five key elements:

• Core Educational Program

• Thematic Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning

• Embedded Instructional Partnerships

• Pathways to Higher Education

• Instructional and Leadership Coaching

RTSA’s defining feature is its Thematic, Interdisciplinary, and Project-Based Learning (TIP) curriculum. Students approach curriculum and content through a thematic lens that addresses the distinct social-emotional needs and circumstances of students in the juvenile justice system. The TIP curriculum is engaging and has meaningful learning opportunities that are tied to the real world and connected to students’ experiences and interests. Students study subjects through related social-emotional themes with overarching essential questions and across all disciplines.

The themes relate to each other and build on the previous themes. After looking at multiple perspectives within the themes, students develop their own point of view and voice on the subject matter. The goal is for students to develop facility to discuss current issues by looking at evidence to determine a point of view. As a result, students become active and informed citizens who can document and share their learning. Their learning is expressed in a diverse set of projects that involve writing, media, interactive science experiments, and public presentations.

Through the process of project-based learning, students investigate and respond to complex, open-ended essential questions. Students are engaged in a rigorous, extended process of inquiry, using resources and developing answers. Through this process, students build competencies that are valuable for college and career, such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity/ innovation. Students act as professionals and confront the problems.


Since its launch in 2010, the RTSA model continues to yield success. RTSA uses the Northwestern Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment to measure growth in math and reading, and administers the test every 60 school days. These assessments show that, on average, students are demonstrating about one year of growth in English- Language Arts and half-year of growth in math. Attitudinally, the school culture at RTSA is described as one where students are exhibiting greater self-confidence, enhanced focus and classroom engagement, and higher quality academic work.

The RTSA model was the recipient of the prestigious Golden Bell Award from the California School Board Association in 2013. The award recognizes public school programs that are innovative and sustainable, make a demonstrated difference for students and focus on meeting the needs of all students.

RTSA continues to be recognized and highlighted:

  • RTSA was featured on Univision's three-part series, Exito Bajo la Sombra, and in several news articles, including the Los Angeles Daily News and Juvenile Justice Information Exchange in 2013 and 2014
  • RTSA was selected as the only Juvenile Court School in Los Angeles County to participate in the California Democracy School Civic Learning Initiative Grant for 2013-2016.
  • RTSA held its first annual “Celebration of Learning” at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in June 2014. Former students performed and showcased their learning and successes. The event was funded by a grant from the California Wellness Foundation.
  • RTSA received a six-year WASC accreditation in 2014.

Acknowledging the success demonstrated at Scott-Scudder, LACOE invested necessary financial and human resources to expand and replicate the RTSA program to all of its Juvenile Court Schools in the fall of 2013.

Additional literature that supports the RTSA model:

1. http://www.cdfca.org/research-library/documents/reforming-the-nations.pdf

2. http://www.cdfca.org/research-library/documents/rising-up-speaking-out.pdf

3. http://www.studentsatthecenter.org/sites/scl.dl-dev.com/files/Mind%20Brain%20Education.pdf


Poster Presentation

Biographical Sketch

Diana Velasquez-Campos graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in Psychobiology in 1995. Velasquez-Campos joined LACOE as a mentor teacher who modeled standards-based lessons using best research-based practices. Her success in teaching has earned her many awards, including the L.A. County Probation Teacher of the Year, Juvenile Court and Community Schools Teacher of the Year, LACOE Teacher of the Year and L.A. County Bilingual Directors Association Outstanding Teacher, LACOE Division of Student Programs Central Office Administrator of the Year. In 2010, she headed a team that worked tirelessly on a research project that sought to find ways to turn things around for Juvenile Court schools. The result was a promising innovative teaching program, the Road To Success Academy, which was based on thematic interdisciplinary project-based learning. The program was a success, demonstrating measurable gains in student learning. In recognition of this success, the California School Boards Association presented LACOE with the prestigious Golden Bell Award. The Road To Success Academy is now being expanded in all of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Schools.

Diem Johnson is currently the Senior Program Specialist of the Road To Success Academies (RTSA), an award-winning educational model within the Division of Student Programs at the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). Her responsibilities include providing professional development and direct support to LACOE teachers and administrators. Prior to her current position, she has worked in education for over ten years as a literacy specialist, high school teacher, and elementary school teacher in urban settings. Diem holds a M.A. in Education and M.S. in Educational Leadership.

Start Date

11-5-2015 5:45 PM

End Date

11-5-2015 6:45 PM

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Nov 5th, 5:45 PM Nov 5th, 6:45 PM

Road To Success Academies: Transforming Education for Students in the Juvenile Justice System

Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Road To Success Academy (RTSA) is an award-winning model used to educate incarcerated youth through a Thematic, Interdisciplinary, Project-Based curriculum that is tailored to students’ socio-emotional needs and promotes motivation and engagement for students who have not succeeded in traditional classroom settings.