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Road to Success: Project-Based Learning for Girls in Detention

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A thematic, interdisciplinary, project-based approach to teaching incarcerated girls.


The Road to Success: A New Project-Based Learning School for Girls in Detention

school view

Our project sought to develop expertise in project-based learning for the newly founded Road To Success Academy, a Los Angeles County Office of Education public school for incarcerated girls housed at two detention camps managed by the Los Angeles County Probation Department. A new school and new curriculum was launched in September 2010, with an aim toward moving to project-based learning and unifying the entire site (with our partners from the Probation Department) to support student projects during and after school. The launch has been very successful, with many educational and cultural shifts starting to take hold (along with peak student interest in thematic projects across the curriculum and dual classroom/Probation activities such as opening talking circles). However, faculty needed greater expertise in the advisory role that is at the core of project-based learning. In addition, faculty needed a way to develop site-specific training curriculum (for faculty, staff and Probation Department partners), which required a significant amount of meeting and collaborative time. Our project goals included:

  • Rooting project-based learning deeply at the site
  • Forming a true partnership with Probation
  • Supporting faculty capacity to train on and learn more about project-based learning
  • Positively impacting student success metrics  (including academic achievement, less violence or disruption at the site, positive transitions back to the community and success at creating and presenting their projects). 



Our team consists of different stakeholders including administration and three teachers from different disciplines.  As a team, we were able to further investigate project based learning through various cutting edge conferences, such as Deeper Learning in San Diego, and Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum in Rhode Island. We have utilized these valuable new practices during our weekly Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), as well as lesson planning and implementation in the classroom.

Diana Velasquez, Principal                                  Diem Johnson, Literacy Specialist       

Diana                    Diem

Charlie Phelps, Math/Science Teacher             Ron Michelstein, Advisory Teacher





Launched in September 2010, the Road to Success Academy is designed to address the many special needs and unique circumstances of girls in the juvenile justice system. The curriculum uses a project-based approach, which engages students in thematic, interdisciplinary learning framed by essential questions that invite them to delve into content in more direct and meaningful ways. The school program involves daily and special activities to promote self-esteem and empower young women to make positive choices and behavioral changes. 

theme cycle


Students study subjects through a theme with an overarching essential question, across all core subjects. Themes and essential questions include:




What is beauty?

Sub questions: Who defines beauty and why? When the search for beauty does it become unhealthy or harmful?


What is power?

Sub questions: Who or what has power and why? When and how is power distributed? What does it mean to be disempowered? What does it mean to be empowered?


How does hope change over time?

Sub questions: How has my hope changed over time? What happens to those who give up hope? How do people keep hope when things go wrong?


How is transformation a part of life?

Sub questions: How are people transformed through their relationship with others? In what ways does conflict lead to change/transformation.

New Beginnings

What does it mean to begin anew?

Sub questions: Who am I? What are the various factors that shape my identify? What does it mean to be an American?  What does it mean to be “from” a place? How does where we are from influence who we are?




Through our specifically designed Thematic Interdisciplinary Project-Based (TIP) curriculum, our students delve into content inquiry that offers a more direct and meaningful approach to learning. They approach curriculum through thematic lenses that address the distinct social and emotional needs and unique circumstances of girls incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. Our program involves daily and special activities to promote self-esteem and empower young women to make positive choices and behavioral changes. RTSA strives to realize our vision by centering our school approach, goals, and curriculum around core thematic self-development pathways.

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 we hope to create active and informed citizens who can document and share their learning. Their learning is expressed in a diverse set of projects including writing, media, interactive science experiments and public presentations, to name a few.





Science of Rocketry

View how TIIP funds were utilized to propel our Science department's projects into a whole new atmosphere.

                             Student rocket


Transformation of the Earth

The Road to Success Academy molded students knowledge on the creation of earth as it is observed today. Visitors to this link can obtain a quality understanding of how our projects are shared with the general public and visiting educators at the end of each unit's Exhibition.


Solar Still

Learn from the words of one of our own students, the experience and process of creating a life saving project, that was of course funded by our TIIP grant. 



Using TIIP funds, our team was able to attend institutes, trainings, and conferences. The following pages contain more information about the events we attended:

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