Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

Some two dozen young men reached a milestone a few weeks ago that many take for granted, and in doing so wrote success stories not just for their own lives and their own families, but also for the entire community.

These were the graduates of Los Robles High School at the Los Prietos Boys Camp — many of them tough young men who had made serious mistakes. They had broken laws, some had used drugs, many struggled against daunting circumstances that started much earlier in their young lives. Some had been defiant, some incorrigible. Every one of them overcame very long odds.

They marched in to Pomp and Circumstance, and sat on the stage at the Santa Barbara County Education Office in caps and gowns, before an auditorium filled with those who loved and admired them, to receive their hard-earned high school diplomas. Their smiles told their story for them. And when they took part in the annual tradition, taking long-stem roses and leaving the stage to hand each one to someone in the audience they wanted to thank for their support, tears of joy and relief were evident everywhere.

Los Robles High School, a school operated by the Santa Barbara County Education Office, is located at Los Prietos Boys Camp, which is run by the Santa Barbara County Probation Department. Graduation 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.

“This is the first step taken into a bright new future,” wrote Jaime from Orcutt. Andres, of Santa Maria wrote: “Graduation means that I proved to myself that I can accomplish a very high goal in my life. But most importantly, I did it in memory of my mother to put a smile on her face knowing she’s looking down on me when I graduate.”

Each speaker acknowledged the long and difficult path 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.

Local Rotary clubs from Santa Maria, Goleta, and Santa Ynez conferred several scholarship awards to the young men, helping ensure they had the support necessary to take the next positive steps in their lives.

It was clear that the young men were absorbing all the messages of support from keynote speaker Salud Carbajal, county supervisor from the first district, and that they were fully aware of the magnitude of their accomplishments.

“For me to graduate means a lot since it will help me throughout my life. It is also a great because I will be the first in my whole family to graduate high school,” wrote Luis, of Guadalupe.

Wrote Christopher, of Santa Maria: “Graduating from high school is a start of a new beginning that no matter what, I can accomplish and achieve anything in life. Proving to not only myself but everyone that I’m here, I did it, I graduated.”

Charles of Santa Maria also set high goals: “Graduation means that I can get onto the road of success, start college, and move on and benefit my life and my family.” Josue, of Santa Barbara echoed the sentiment: “Graduation means the world is open to me and I’m looking forward to many new experiences. It also means a bright future for me and my loved ones.”

High school graduations are important milestones, and cause for pride. At this graduation, those in the audience felt they were seeing lives turned around, mountains climbed, and futures made much brighter and more promising than many could have imagined.

Wrote Jose, of Santa Maria: “Graduating from high school is another chance to change my life around and make my Mom proud of her one and only son.” Added Jose from Santa Barbara: “To me this means a lot. I can have so many opportunities and it will help me out in the future.”

The staff of both the Juvenile Court and Community School Program and the Probation Department operate in an arena often unknown to the majority of community members in our county. The population of incarcerated young men they deal with can be invisible to members of the public. Yet the difference that these dedicated professionals make in the lives of some very troubled students is evident every day, and culminated in this very meaningful event. It was absolutely clear that these staff members changed lives.

All the time and effort on the part of school staff, probation officers, and students bore fruit in two short hours when two dozen 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 the pomp and circumstance of any high school graduation.

The impact of the achievement was clear to see in the smiles and the words of the young men receiving their diplomas. It was also etched into the faces of the family members and loved ones in the audience. Kudos and good wishes all around.