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Bill Cirone: Graduation Celebrates Lives Changed for the Better

Santa Barbara County's schools superintendent tells of the pride and admiration that come from seeing 22 troubled students receive their high school diplomas.

There were 22 young men on the stage of the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s auditorium on May 14 – many of them tough young men who had made their share of mistakes. They had broken laws, some had used drugs, many struggled against a very raw deal that started much earlier in their young lives. Some had been defiant, some nearly incorrigible. Every one of them overcame the odds that were against them.

Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s schools superintendent.

There they sat, in caps and gowns, before an auditorium filled with those who loved and admired them. Their smiles were infectious. When they were asked to step off the stage, take two of the many long-stem roses available and hand each one to someone in the audience they wanted to thank for their support, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

These 22 young men were graduates of Los Robles High School, a school operated by the Santa Barbara County Education Office and located at Los Prietos Boys Camp. The day marked the largest high school graduating class in the history of the program. A few short years ago, we were justifiably proud that there were three graduates. That is how far the program — and the determination of the young men involved — has progressed.

“I’m proud to be the first person in my family to graduate high school,” wrote Inocente, age 18, from Santa Barbara. “I never thought I’d graduate high school, but look at me now. I’m a high school graduate!” wrote Ivan, age 18, from Goleta. “Even when I was close to defeat, I rose to my feet,” wrote Jorge, 18, from Lompoc. And Juan, age 18, from Santa Maria, seemed to speak for all of them when he wrote, “Graduating from high school means a new beginning for me. It is setting a path for my future.”

Speaker after speaker acknowledged the long and difficult path these young men had traveled to reach this milestone, and the responsibilities they now had to use their diplomas to make a difference in their own lives and in their communities.

The Santa Maria Breakfast Rotary and the Goleta Noontime Rotary conferred several scholarship awards to the young men, helping ensure they had the support necessary to take the next positive steps in their lives. Keynote speaker Cam Sanchez, the Santa Barbara police chief, provided inspiration, motivation and sound advice as he talked about his own path from roots not very dissimilar to many of those on stage. He talked of the importance of family and of making good decisions.

It was clear that the young men were absorbing all of the messages of support, and that they were fully aware of the magnitude of their accomplishments.

“I never gave up, and here I am graduating,” wrote John, 17, from Lompoc. “I will keep moving forward,” wrote Zach, 18, from Santa Maria. “This is proof I made change for the positive,” wrote Tyler, 17, from Lompoc. “Graduating from high school opens up a lot of doors for me with many different possibilities for employment and my education,” wrote Travis, 17, from Buellton.

Every high school graduation is an important milestone and cause for pride and celebration. Those in attendance at this particular ceremony had the sense they were watching something of great importance — of lives turned around, of mountains climbed, of futures made much brighter and more promising than many could have imagined.

The staff of the Juvenile Court and Community School Program and the Probation Department operate in an arena not seen by the majority of community members in our county. The population of incarcerated young men they deal with is often invisible to members of the public. Yet the difference these dedicated professionals make in the lives of very troubled students was so evident at this ceremony that it made us all wish even more people had been there to witness the weight of the moment. These staff members changed lives.

It wasn’t easy, it was always pleasant and sometimes it was thankless. The same could be said from the students’ perspectives. But all the time and effort on both sides bore fruit in two short hours when 22 young men took the stage in caps and gowns with all the fanfare, the flowers and balloons, the honor guard and the music, and truly all of the pomp and circumstance of any high school graduation.

The magnitude of the impact was abundant for all to see on the smiles and in the words of the young men receiving their diplomas. It also was etched into the faces of the mothers and others who received those roses.

Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s schools superintendent.

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