As the evening breeze cut the oncoming summer heat Friday, nearly 350 students in red caps and gowns walked onto the football field at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa to mark the end of their high school days.
The teens, among the roughly 4,500 graduating seniors in Sonoma County, were met with whistles and cheers by friends and family in the bleachers as they strode onto the turf, about to embark upon new journeys into college, careers and adulthood.
During the student speeches and songs, Montgomery High science teacher Doug Benenson looked on from the back of the field wearing a red shirt with a Viking logo, the school color and mascot. In his 32 years at the school, he’s been to more than a dozen graduation ceremonies, all featuring pomp and circumstance beyond the title of the song that’s played when graduates walk.
“It’s like anything else, a right of passage to start a new chapter of your life,” Benenson said.
As the speeches ended and the reading of the names began, the crowd started cheering again.
“This is why the parents come,” Benenson said with a smile as students’ names were read one by one. “Right here.”
On Friday alone, 20 high schools across Sonoma County held graduation ceremonies, including all nine high schools in Santa Rosa. From May 26 to June 9, all 36 public high schools in Sonoma County will hold ceremonies to celebrate the class of 2017.
Students from all walks of life celebrated their educational achievement throughout the county. If the recent trend continues, graduation rates in the county could continue to increase.
While 2017 numbers have not yet been released, 2016 saw a 1.5 percent increase in graduation rates from 2015 to 84 percent. This is just above the statewide average of 83 percent. Over the past seven years, graduation rates have increased by 10 percent.
For students like Eloiza Barrera, graduation is a little sweeter because of the adversity that had to be overcome on her way to a diploma. Barrera became a mother when she was a 17-year-old sophomore at Elsie Allen High School. As a young mom with a newborn to care for she took a year off but then continued her studies at Amarosa Academy, an alternative education program, in 2016.
On Wednesday afternoon, Barrera received her high school diploma with 15 classmates at a ceremony held at the Sonoma County Office of Education.
“When I left school for a year it was really hard for me,” Barrera said. “The teachers at Amarosa really helped me. They knew my situation and they understood what I was going through.”
Barrera now plans on attending the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas to begin her undergraduate studies, something that seemed far off when she took a break from high school.
Back at Montgomery High School, parents had mixed emotions about seeing their children moving on to the next step in their lives. For some, it couldn’t have come sooner. For others, there was a sense of loss in their children’s new beginning.
“It’s bittersweet. I miss my kid being this big,” said Jeff Lyons, who became emotional as he motioned his hand just over his knee. His son, Cody, graduated Friday and plans to go Santa Rosa Junior College before moving on to a four-year university for a degree in mechanical engineering, Lyons said.