There aren't many reasons to feel good about K-12 public education in California these days.

A shrinking tax base has meant slashed budgets, which has resulted in teacher layoffs, crowded classrooms, fewer library hours and more furlough days. If the sky isn't falling, it's at least several hundred feet closer to the ground than it used to be.

But for a few minutes last week, a glimmer of hope lit up an assembly hall in Concord, where 38 "Students of Excellence" from East Bay high schools were celebrated at the Contra Costa County Office of Education's 2012 ROP awards ceremony.

ROP stands for Regional Occupation Program, a far-flung undertaking that provides career-building skills with dozens of elective courses ranging from automotive technology to architectural design to cabinetmaking to computer science. (There even are journalism classes, obviously the most demanding.)

Many are advanced placement (college-level) courses, and all are taught by instructors with at least five years' industry experience.

These are hands-on, get-your-fingernails-dirty, real-world educations.

The program is popular enough to attract more than 12,000 students, so earning a spot among the honorees is a remarkable distinction.

You could see that reflected in the smiling faces of the award winners when they were introduced on stage.

Each received a certificate of recognition and a $200 scholarship (funded by Chevron, John Muir Health and Walnut Creek Honda). The audience, numbering more than 200, received something even better: A reason to keep believing in public education.

The examples were numerous:

  • Dana Lund, of Concord High: "When I started the biotech program, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Through the year and my wonderful teacher Dr. (Ernie) Liu, I learned what I want for my career."

  • Jacqueline Miller, of Campolindo: "Two years ago, I signed up for sports medicine and had no clue it would end up being my passion. Through the help of my teacher, Ray Albiento, I have learned to love it and I'm looking forward to going into a medical field."

  • Christa Leach, of Freedom: "I love children -- their smiles can make me go from having an awful day to the best one. ROP made me realize I not only want to play with kids, I want to teach them. I aspire to be an elementary schoolteacher."

  • Alexandra Silva, of Dougherty Valley: "I pulled away more life lessons from my ROP classes than any other I've ever taken."

    Some of the students said they planned to go on to technical schools. Others are enrolled to attend college. The spectrum of career choices they targeted range from auto repair to law enforcement to video programming to Web design and beyond.

    Hope Curran, a College Park senior who plans to attend UC Santa Barbara, already has capitalized on the skills she learned in an advanced photography class. "I'm a self-employed photographer," she said. "I do portraits and parties."

    The unmistakable take-away from the 75-minute ceremony was the sense of accomplishment shared by the students -- and the appreciation nearly every one of them expressed for the ROP program and, especially, their instructors.

    Aspiring filmmaker Fifer Garbesi, a Berkeley High senior who plans to attend New York University, may have put it best when addressing her teacher, Dharini Rasiah: "Thank you so much for helping me make my dreams come true."

    Even in hard times, public education still works for those who apply themselves.

    Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.