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 From Juvenile Hall to College for Class of One

Most people have a clear idea in their head about what graduations look like: out on a field with lots of other students, Pomp and Circumstance playing over and over again, balloons, leis, flashing cameras.

For one local student, the experience was very different, though every bit as powerful and rewarding.

This week, an 18-year-old student attending San Diego County Office of Education's San Diego SOAR Academy inside the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility graduated. It was a class of one.

"Look at me. I did it," she said at the graduation. "This is something I've dreamed of."

Although it was in a relatively small and stark room, it was full of love and spirit as family, classmates, teachers, and law enforcement officers loudly cheered her on. The room was adorned with pink roses, black balloons, a festive cake, and a handmade congratulations banner.

The student, whom we can't name in compliance with Juvenile Court policy, still has another couple of months left in the detention facility. Even so, she said she's excited to be able to start college classes. She plans to take online classes while still in the facility and to go to community college when she gets out. Her dream is to major in business and open her own restaurant.

When she first came to the San Diego SOAR Academy, she was almost 200 credits behind. She didn't think there was any chance she would one day be the one donning a cap and gown.

Her dad never lost hope, though and said he was happy to be able to share the moment with her.

"I always knew she had it in her," he said at the celebration. "I'm so proud of her."

Students organized the graduation ceremony, which featured speeches from the people who have gotten to know the student as she has spent time at the school and at classrooms in the Girls Rehabilitation Facility site.

Some of the speakers pointed out that the student is now not only a high school graduate, but also a role model for the other students in the facilities who attended the ceremony.

"To see her talking about college is powerful," said Chris Toomey, a counselor at San Diego SOAR Academy. "She's rebuilding her whole life."

These small graduations are fairly common at the San Diego SOAR Academy sites. So far this year, the school has graduated about 60 students at its four sites.

San Diego SOAR Academy is part of San Diego County Office of Education's Momentum Learning program. It serves students who are detained at Kearny Mesa and East Mesa juvenile detention facilities, Camp Barrett, and Girls Rehabilitation Facility.

Students at the Kearny Mesa facility came up with the name, which is an acronym for Success, Opportunities, Achievement, and Results.