Imagine a room filled with high-achieving high school students, grateful for their education, who are fully engaged in studies focused on diverse career opportunities.

Hard as it is to envision, that was the scene last week at the Concord Senior Center, where the Contra Costa County Office of Education honored 40 award winners at its ROP Students of Excellence Celebration.

The Regional Occupation Program -- ROP as it's known -- touches 38 high schools, 18 school districts and about 12,000 students in the East Bay, but it largely goes unpublicized and underappreciated.

In the plain-spoken words of Deputy Superintendent Karen Sakata, "The idea is to provide opportunities for our students to have experiences that will lead to careers." In practice, the program is much more than that. It stimulates academic curiosity by encouraging students to dive into whatever fields of study appeal to them.

Professionals from a wide array of disciplines -- sports medicine, computer graphics, fire science, culinary arts and robotics engineering to name a few -- teach the career-directed courses as part of each student's class load. Field trips, guest speakers and lab work put them in touch with the realities of the professions.

Dina Zangwill, a biotechnology student at Piedmont High, offered a glimpse behind the curtain:


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"I have to thank my teacher Tom Huffaker for the most exciting and engaging class I've ever taken. It wasn't just the labs and lessons. I couldn't believe what we were doing, working with DNA, bacteria and proteins. He brought in amazing speakers and took us to all these companies so we could see what we were doing was actually happening in the real world."

If the goal of the program is to start youngsters on career paths, its success is rooted in playing to their individual interests.

David Chapman, an advanced automotive technology student at Antioch High, put it this way: "Having a little bit of background in helping my dad fixing cars, I walked into the auto shop, and it was like a second home. I couldn't believe I could make a career out of something that I loved and learned as I was growing up."

Each of the award winners received a $200 scholarship (funded by Chevron and John Muir Health) and a certificate of accomplishment, but for the 200 or so friends and family members in the crowd, the highlight was hearing students talk about their experiences.

"Before taking AP (advanced placement) environmental science, I had absolutely no idea what career path I would follow," said San Ramon Valley senior Dennis Riley. "After learning about the need for pollution cleanup and solutions to other environmental problems, I was able to decide what I'd spend the rest of my life doing. I'm going to UC Davis to study civil and environmental engineering."

Many of the students will attend four-year colleges, others community college or technical school. A few may launch their careers. All who were honored seemed brimming with confidence.

No one was more so than Allison Winter, who studied play production at California High and hopes to be a stage manager. She grinned as she accepted her award.

"I'd like to thank the Academy," she said, to laughter. "I've always wanted to say that. And thanks, ROP, for giving us all this opportunity to show how awesome we are."

She grinned and the crowd laughed, but there was a lot of truth in what she said.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.