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As a new trustee of the Sonoma County Board of Education, I had the privilege of attending a recent graduation ceremony at the Wells Fargo Center of 37 students who had been at high risk of not finishing high school. Many of the students had been expelled from their local school districts.

Recent publicity regarding Santa Rosa City Schools' expulsion rates may have given the impression that expelled students have had their ability to graduate from high school taken away. The fact is expelled students still have the right to the education needed to complete high school.

In Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Office of Education's community schools provide that education. When a school district expels a student, it contacts the Office of Education and staff immediately begin the process of enrolling the student in one of our two community schools. If a student needs transportation, the Office of Education provides a bus pass.

A student speaker at the graduation gave this description of community schools: "The Sonoma County community school is an alternative way to help us learn to believe in ourselves so that we can succeed." (Due to privacy issues, student names must be withheld.)

Community schools such as Amarosa Academy in Santa Rosa and Headwaters Academy in Petaluma provide a small-school, specialized learning environment for students who are experiencing difficulties in a traditional school setting, or who are exhibiting negative behavior patterns in school or the community. Students at these schools are provided more personalized attention than at traditional public high schools. Class sizes are limited to no more than 20. Besides academics, there is an emphasis on addressing the issues that cause a student's negative behavior.

"We address the life skills — how students make decisions and what is going on with them — so that they can attend school and graduate," said Georgia Ioakimedes, director of alternative education and student support services at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Expelled students often feel as if they have been thrown away. To address that Ioakimedes said, "We work to find that redeeming quality in a student, such as artistic talent, leadership skills, etc., and then capitalize on that positive quality to help the student find a way to feel successful."

In his speech at the ceremony, a graduating senior described his life-changing experience at Amarosa Academy: "Before I came to Amarosa, I did not place any value on education. I did not see it having a place in my life. Because of this negative outlook, I was making choices that were not good for my future goals."

He now plans to attend Santa Rosa Junior College and hopes to go beyond and get a bachelors degree.

Another graduate who spoke at the ceremony plans to enter the Navy. His speech touched on how he changed his attitude with the guidance and support of instructors at Headwaters Academy.

"Now, I know what it feels like to believe in myself," he said. "I have achieved gratitude and peace. I have learned to move on in life."

Credit for helping these students also goes to the public agencies and community-based organizations that collaborate with the Office of Education to provide supportive services. For example, the Santa Rosa Rotary Club funds a program called Support Our Students that provides a marriage family therapist and counseling interns. The Center for Social and Environmental Stewardship and Petaluma Learning and Guidance provide mental health and alcohol and drug abuse counseling, and the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County's literacy program provides volunteer reading tutors.

I agree that the best option is to prevent expelling a student. But when it happens, there is a team of Sonoma County educators dedicated to helping that student succeed.

Gina Cuclis is a member of the Sonoma County Board of Education.