Dr. Paulette Koss, principal of the Road To Success Academy, in front of the newest student mural.
The bright yellow classroom was abuzz with activity when Dr. Paulette Koss, principal of the school, walked in, and it didn’t stop when the teenage students noticed her.
“Tell us what you’re working on,” Koss said to a tall, slender, slightly fidgety girl standing in the middle of the room. The teenager launched into an enthusiastic explanation of a project on Martin Luther King Jr. and stereotypes, showed off a tri-fold board of writing and artwork and ending with what she thought was the most important lesson for her: “Judging people isn’t always the best answer.”
It could have been any school, anywhere, except this school, Road To Success Academy, is on the grounds of Camp Scott, one of two identical Los Angeles County juvenile detention centers nestled into a hilly area near Santa Clarita. There are probation officers outside the door; the girls are dressed in identical polo shirts, black pants and gray sweatshirts. Their faces are devoid of makeup, but gang tattoos on their wrists sometimes slide past the long sleeves.
The academy has replaced the traditional detention center’s independent study programs with a thematic, interdisciplinary, project-based approach that demands trust and cooperation among the incarcerated girls. Usually ages 15-18, many may never have trusted anyone before. School has often been a succession of failures.
Tapped for leadership
Koss was midway through her doctoral program at Brandman University when she was asked to be principal, following the footsteps of the academy’s founder, Diana Velasquez-Campos.
“Diana and her team worked on it for about three years and then LACOE (Los Angeles County Office of Education) decided they were going to make Road to Success an actual certification. They came up with a 15-page rubric. We got our certification last year, a year after I got here,” said Koss. Velasquez-Campos became director of the overall program and is in the process of helping other L.A. County detention centers adopt it and become certified.
Although Koss had 20 years of teaching special education and three years of experience as an administrator, which included being a principal of a LACOE special education school in Compton and assistant principal at the juvenile hall Los Padrinos in Downey, she wasn’t familiar with project-based learning.
Watching it in action still gives her goosebumps. “It really touches the girls. It really matters to them,” she said.
In project-based learning, students work together to research a topic over an extended period of time and respond to complex questions or problems by demonstrating what they’ve learned.
Koss thinks her Brandman background, particularly the emphasis on transformation leadership, brought her to attention of those looking for a principal who could continue and build on the program at Camp Scott/Camp Scudder.
A Brandman approach
The Brandman Ed.D. program and project-based learning have much in common. The words courage, trust and collaboration come up often whether Koss is talking about Brandman or the academy program.
“I had to have the courage to say what I didn’t know,” she said. “LACOE had a lot of trust in me to say ‘We know you don’t really know anything about project-based learning but we think you’re a good leader, so we’re going to put you here.” Her staff also had to trust her, despite her lack of previous experience. “My staff knows that if I tell you I’m going to get you an answer, I get you an answer.”
In the process of switching jobs, she also changed her dissertation topic, choosing to focus on project-based learning and incarcerated juveniles. She connected with the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternate Settings (CEEAS) to find teachers in other schools, eventually interviewing teachers in California, Texas and Florida. She had to opt for a qualitative rather than quantitative study because so few programs exist, though she hopes to someday follow up with more data.
Working on her dissertation she said “reinforced how special our program is. They’re not doing it the way we’re doing it, but even with that, it made the students more engaged in school. Socialization increased.”
Each unit ends with students demonstrating what they’ve learned. At Road to Success, they invite in community members to see the results.
“I can’t believe people came to see my work” and “I felt smart and I’ve never felt smart before” were two of the comments the girls wrote after a recent exhibition. “I was worried I would stutter because I always stutter. But I didn’t and I’m so proud of myself,” wrote another.
“That just came spontaneously from the girls,” said Koss.
Lighting the Fire
Despite changing dissertation topics, Koss finished and defended hers in April, in time to be included among the first group of Ed.D. students honored during the May commencement ceremonies.
The dissertation also earned her the CEAAS Lighting the Fire Principal of the Year Award. She plans to use it to help spread the word on the Road to Success program, possibly coaching principals and teachers at other juvenile detention centers about ways to change their programs.
“Paulette is a very dedicated educator and is truly making a difference for at-risk incarcerated youth,” said her dissertation chair Dr. Doug DeVore. “Her findings indicate that project-based learning has a very positive impact on academic achievement for the incarcerated youth based on the perception and responses from teachers working with juvenile offenders.”
Devore and others at Brandman have also helped the way Koss views her role as principal. “About 95 percent of the decisions are made by the staff,” she said. Instead of staff meetings, they have professional learning communities, regular meetings where the teachers get together to plan and review data. Her role is to facilitate, which she says often means listening.
“That was a big change for me. My role is to guide and keep them on track and let my teachers do what they do. That’s a big difference for administration,” she said. Planning units collaboratively makes sure each project reaches across all disciplines. Koss sees her role as making sure that projects don’t devolve into being just activities and, when possible, good ideas for activities are expanded to truly become learning projects. She keeps her eye on the school’s mission and guides her teachers to do the same.
Collaboration and cooperation also extend to the probation department and officers who have the ultimate authority for what happens at the detention centers. Their willingness to embrace the program has allowed the girls to use scissors, even shovels, to complete projects.
It took a year to work out the logistics and approvals, but Koss also got permission for a first-ever field trip to the Reagan library for a few students. She had the probation officers read a letter from her before the girls left the bus. “’I’m trusting you to be on your best behavior and I know you’ll do it.’ They were good as gold,” she said.
Visit the campus with Koss and her enthusiasm for the program shines through. She points with pride to a garden built by the girls and the newest mural, a colorful collection of flowers and butterflies that decorates the side of a trailer.
Koss wants to keep the momentum going, something else she learned about transformational leadership at Brandman. The Ed.D. program, she said, opened her eyes to numerous possibilities, in part because her fellow students weren’t all from the education field. Along with a strong sense of integrity and accountability, she appreciated seeing how business and military people approach changes.
She would like to take what she’s learned and use it to coach others working with incarcerated youths. Brandman has also given her the courage to “buck the status-quo.”
“I can’t take credit for the transformation here. That was done before I got here. But we can’t rest on our laurels. It’s keeping that transformation mindset going. It’s not just what can I do for my school, but what can I do for juvenile education in the country? Brandman has inspired me to take what I’ve learned here onto a larger scale,” she said.
One possibility is turning her dissertation into a book, especially after discovering how little research and writing has been done on juvenile detention education. But first comes her reward for finishing her Ed.D., a trip to Hawaii. And then there are those bright-eyed girls spilling into the pathways of Camp Scott.
“They’re starting to look at themselves as learners. Most of the time at the school, we don’t know what their crime is and we don’t care what their crime is, because they’re students to us. That’s the most important thing. That’s how we look at them.”
Road to Success Academy mission
• Attend to the unique educational, emotional, social and circumstantial needs of girls I the juvenile justice system.
• Use project-based learning to engage students and challenge them to meet and exceed California core curriculum standards.
• Daily activities to promote character development, self-esteem and empower young women to make positive choices and behavioral changes, guiding them back to their communities and onto the road to success.
Among the many books from her Ed.D. program that Koss found influential were “A Leader’s Legacy” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner and “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.