Plan-Do-Study-Act Charts a Course for Boosting Graduation Rates Among Youth on Probation

Posted February 11, 2019, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Probation staff from Santa Cruz, California

In California’s San­ta Cruz Coun­ty, juve­nile jus­tice lead­ers found that young peo­ple on pro­ba­tion were not earn­ing high school cred­its or grad­u­at­ing at the same rates as their gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion peers. To learn more about the issue and how to address it, pro­ba­tion offi­cials turned to the Plan-Do-Study-Act method — a key­stone of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Results Count™ lead­er­ship devel­op­ment approach.

Ear­ly results are promis­ing. Dur­ing the first quar­ter of the 2018 – 19 school year, the aver­age num­ber of cred­its earned by youth on pro­ba­tion increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly — by 143% — com­pared to first quar­ter results from one year ago.

Plan-Do-Study-Act is a cycli­cal approach to improv­ing a process or out­come. First, prac­ti­tion­ers iden­ti­fy an improve­ment idea that can be assessed over a set peri­od of time. Then, they devel­op a small test of change (Plan), imple­ment the plan (Do), observe the results (Study), and make adjust­ments (Act) before the cycle’s next iter­a­tion. The process applies learn­ing to action at increas­ing lev­els of scale — becom­ing more effec­tive and effi­cient — until a change can ben­e­fit large num­bers of people.

Valerie Thomp­son, assis­tant chief pro­ba­tion offi­cer for San­ta Cruz Coun­ty, used Plan-Do-Study-Act to test how boost­ing parental engage­ment would affect stu­dent atten­dance, cred­it accru­al and, ulti­mate­ly, the high school grad­u­a­tion rates of youth on probation.

Employ­ees from the coun­ty pro­ba­tion depart­ment and the San­ta Cruz Coun­ty Office of Edu­ca­tion worked with Thomp­son to assess how they were engag­ing par­ents. The group found that the sta­tus quo — one-way noti­fi­ca­tions about behav­ior, atten­dance or aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance — wasn’t working.

As a result, the group shift­ed to a more com­pre­hen­sive — and more racial­ly and eth­ni­cal­ly equi­table — approach. The team con­tact­ed par­ents via phone, text and face-to-face and ensured that all com­mu­ni­ca­tions were bilin­gual, since San­ta Cruz’s south coun­ty region is more than three-quar­ters Latino.

Our plan was to adjust the num­ber and types of con­tacts as we gained data about what was work­ing,” Thomp­son explains. Engag­ing in oth­er ways didn’t cost a lot but did make a dif­fer­ence in terms of parental involvement.”

More recent­ly, adults and youths gath­ered for a focus group ses­sion to dis­cuss the new approach and the team’s results. Par­ents report­ed hav­ing a bet­ter under­stand­ing of aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess require­ments and the val­ue of their sup­port­ive role. Equal­ly impor­tant, par­ents relayed that they felt more involved in their child’s education.

The team is now work­ing to expand its enhanced engage­ment approach — a move that will quadru­ple the num­ber of fam­i­lies involved. We’re excit­ed by the results so far,” says Thomp­son, but our work won’t be com­plete until we reach our ulti­mate goal of ensur­ing that all youth on pro­ba­tion in the coun­ty are on track for grad­u­a­tion and future success.”

Jen­nifer Gross, a senior asso­ciate in the Foundation’s Lead­er­ship Devel­op­ment unit, says the San­ta Cruz sto­ry shows the pow­er of Plan-Do-Study-Act. With its struc­tured use of data and focus on incre­men­tal change, Plan-Do-Study-Act can accel­er­ate real results in the real world.”

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