Sonoma County's largest school district is pressing forward with what backers are calling the most comprehensive concussion awareness and prevention program among the area's high school athletic programs.

After faltering last fall and failing to hire certified athletic trainers for each of the district's five comprehensive high schools, Santa Rosa City Schools turned to athletic directors and North Coast Concussion Management, a local nonprofit group. The group has enlisted doctors, athletic trainers, parents and others to give online cognitive tests and conduct education sessions for more than 1,400 athletes in the 2013-14 school year.

"What we have established in our district is probably one of the more important things that we have ever really done," said veteran trustee Frank Pugh. "I believe we are changing lives and saving lives as well."

The district hopes to expand the program in the upcoming school year by adding more athletes and hiring trainers to look for signs of concussion and other injuries.

Santa Rosa's program follows what has been established at other local schools, but the scale of the education and testing component is unparalleled in Sonoma County, according to Dr. Ty Affleck, who heads Santa Rosa Sports and Family Medicine and is part of the concussion management group.

Student athletes who played football, soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, wrestling and other sports were given a computerized test that is used as a baseline against a post-injury test. The students were also given tutorials on what concussion symptoms look and feel like.

Coaches receive similar training.

The baseline tests, and post-injury tests, are sent with students to their physicians if a concussion is suspected, Affleck said. Forty-three post-injury tests were administered this school year.

"So the kids aren't just released, and 'Go back tomorrow,'" he said. "That is not the way it works anymore."

Hiring five trainers remains a priority for the district. Only four people have recently applied for the job, which pays $15,000 per year.

"I think part of that had to do with the stipend," said program coordinator Arlen Agapinan.

Trustee Donna Jeye credited the athletic directors for pitching in during the just-completed school year and assisting with the program when the district couldn't hire any athletic trainers.

"They stepped up because the plan didn't go according to plan," she said.

"Our (athletic directors) were wonderful," Agapinan said. "They were very helpful in saying 'Well we need to get this done.'"

Concussions can present a unique challenge because although they can cause devastating injury, they do not always have obvious symptoms. A crucial component of the program is training student athletes themselves to recognize symptoms they may see in teammates, Affleck said.

"They look out for each other, which is a real key to this program," he said.

An emotional Bill Carle, credited by his fellow trustees with pushing the program to the fore, said the establishment of the program represented a true opportunity to "have an impact."

"It's been terribly important to me and I appreciate all the work that's been done," he said.