On May 4, fourteen young men marched through Santa Barbara County Education Office Auditorium on Cathedral Oaks to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” in a formal commencement ceremony for Los Robles High School. The school allows male juvenile offenders to complete their high school education at the Probation Department’s Los Prietos Boys Camp as an alternative to traditional detention. The ceremony not only celebrated the boys for overcoming the mistakes of their past, but also the continuing success of the Los Prietos program.
Not long ago, they boys came to camp from all over the county for a myriad of offenses. Grand theft auto and alcohol problems, especially drunk in public charges, are common, and many of them had gang affiliations. “I hung around with bad people that led me to do bad stuff like drugs and not going to school,” explained Rodrigo Avila, an eighteen-year-old from Santa Maria.
Now, as he sits among thirteen others in his graduating class, he tries to hide his smile while administrators, teachers, and probation officers make speeches congratulating their success. Avila is one of 12 in his class that has received a $500 scholarship from the program for enrolling in classes at community college or vocational school. Thanks to a program called “Cyber High,” which allows students to make up missed units and earn college credit, five of the scholarship recipients are already into their second college semester, while another is working on his third. Others plan to go straight into the work force, like Ben Vargas who said he hopes to be a firefighter in Lompoc.
Los Robles also has a woodshop, a drama team, and a hands-on science program, lovingly referred to as “Ghetto Science” by students and faculty alike. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the school is the Vocational Technology Computer Refurbishment Program, led by Melanie Sutton, where students learn to take apart, refurbish, and rebuild computers. Students then took the computers to needy families and taught them how to use it. In the last year, the school gave over 600 computers in the county.
Los Robles and Los Prietos make a commitment to help the young men after they leave. As a requirement for graduation, they all submitted job applications to the Work Force Investment Board 2009 Summer Jobs program. All graduates are provided with applications to the California Gas Company Scholarship program. Fred Razo, Director of Court and Community Schools (CCS) in Santa Barbara County, promised to contact each student within a few days after graduation to see if they needed any assistance. He also gave his personal business card with their diplomas so they could contact him if they ever need to.
Daniel Schradermeir, Los Robles’ teacher in charge, explains that the smaller class sizes and isolated nature of the camp are the differences that make it such a successful environment for troubled youth. “They are up here living all the time, [they] are here 24 hours. They like coming to school, they are clean, sober, focused. That’s huge; there are no distractions like in regular school.”
The students certainly do seem to enjoy their school. During a part of the ceremony where students distributed two roses to the people that supported them most, some gave faculty members a petal before giving the rest of the flower to an aunt or uncle, parent, or grandparent. Almost all students could be seen talking to faculty after the ceremony, whether discussing future plans with a probation officer or science fiction with Schradermeir.
All of the graduates seemed unanimous in their feeling that it felt great to be a high school graduate, yet it was the parents that expressed the most emotion. Many, such as Vargas’ aunt and mother, could only say, “We are so proud; there are no words to describe it.” Upon being asked about her reaction, Dylan Diefenderfer’s grandmother, Patti, said, “We found out a long time ago that he was smart, but he continually made the wrong choices. It’s been a long time, and having the chance to graduate today is a gift. I really believe it saved his life.”
The graduations take place every six months, and last October the school graduated 24 students, making this Los Robles’ most successful school year. Schradermeir said that the lower number this time results from the fact that many students want to graduate with their home high school in the spring. There are currently 75 students enrolled in the program, but the number is constantly fluctuating as students are sent away to Juvenile Hall and new ones come in. To graduate, students must earn 200 credits in the CCS District, or the equivalent to their high school’s requirement.