Moving Mountains Best Practices
2002 Award Winner

Dakota Communities Inc.

Advocate Continuing Education (ACE) program 
Dakota Communities, Inc. (DCI) was incorporated on March 16, 1972. It initially operated a community based home for 48 children with severe intellectual and physical disabilities. The large children’s home was closed in 2001 and the people living there moved to small homes in various communities. By 2001, DCI was supporting 186 adults and children in 31 residential settings as well as 8 people living in family homes. DCI employed 370 direct support professionals (of whom 114 are occasional or on-call employees) and 66 other support and administrative staff members.

DCI was one of three organizations selected as winners of the 2002 Moving Mountains Award for excellence in training and supporting the advancement of direct support professionals through its Advocate Continuing Education Program (ACE). The ACE program is both a training mechanism and a career ladder system designed to professionalize direct support positions. The ACE program enhances the status and image of DSPs by empowering Personal Advocates to participate in all aspects of supporting individuals including planning. DCI provides high quality education and lifelong learning through the ACE program and through the organizations commitment to develop and use its own employees to be trainers on a wide array of topics. It strengthens the working relationships and partnerships between DSPs, self-advocates and families by putting the Personal Advocates into the primary liaison role for the individual for whom they are a Personal Advocate. 

Upon hire, direct support professionals are classified as Advocate in Orientation. Once they have completed the required orientation training and demonstrate competence in the skills covered in the orientation process, they are promoted to an Advocate position. Of 370 direct support employees approximately half are in the Advocate or Advocate in Orientation classifications. Personal Advocates are direct support professionals who have been specifically assigned to be an advocate for one particular person with whom they work. There is a maximum of one Personal Advocate position per person supported in each home or site (approximately 194 direct support professionals are in this job classification). 

Personal Advocates have demonstrated all the knowledge and skills required of Advocates in Orientation and Advocates. They have or are in the process of acquiring the skills needed to be a Personal Advocate. Training is provided in the areas of planning, support objectives, assessments, and supporting community participation. A promotion from Advocate to Personal Advocate is accompanied by a wage increment that averages 15% of their Advocate wage. Personal Advocates actively participate in the interdisciplinary team process, the development and implementation of the Individual Program Plan, life planning, and the daily living of the person for whom they advocate. In addition to completing direct service and household tasks, responsibilities include involvement in a person’s planning process, writing and monitoring support objectives, completing assessments and other tasks. It takes approximately a year to master all of the skills required of a Personal Advocate. 

DCI has implemented several other interventions that support the success of the ACE program.

  • An employee referral bonus program is widely used by staff. Fully 58% of all applicants in 2001 were referred to the job by current or former employees.
  • The Hot Thoughts feedback and response system is a mechanism promoted and widely used by the organization to get feedback about organizational or training changes that would improve the organization. Each suggestion is assigned to a manager for investigation and a response. Each month, the employee newsletter publishes hot thoughts and responses to them for all employees.
  • Formal performance reviews are conducted after orientation and annually thereafter. One section of the performance review focuses on the learning plan for the employee for the coming year. Employees who take the ACE training to become Personal Advocates meet with their supervisors after training to establish learning objectives to work on immediately after the course ends.
  • DCI has a quality enhancement program called COMPASS. The COMPASS system involves several components including a house level review. Each month Advocates, Personal Advocates and Senior Advocates in each home complete an assessment in eight areas. A different direct support employee is responsible for assessing each area. Each month, the assessment focuses on a different person living in the home. This assessment is a direct competency measure embedded into daily practice. The COMPASS system is used to identify training needs of staff both at the organization level and the house level. The system is also used as a training activity for employees. They can learn how to do certain tasks by observing and assessing others as they perform the task. COMPASS also includes a mechanism to collect and summarize customer satisfaction annually. In 2001 overall satisfaction scores were in the “extremely satisfied” range on this measure.
  • o Employee Council. Direct service professionals meet once a month to address concerns and topics that advocates face what can we do to address challenges provide input on recruitment program, recognition banquets, employee of the year nomination. They also plan innovative training about the day to day tasks Advocates do.

These efforts helped DCI attain an annual turnover rate for DSPs in 2002 of 38.3%. For more information about this program contact Brenda Gorel, DCI, 680 O’Neill Drive, Eagan, MN 55121-1535. Phone: 651-688-8808. E-mail:
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