Class Salutatorian Cameron Chisem (center) stands with his peers. Chisem is one of 38 graduates of the class of 2015.

Somewhere along Santa Clara Avenue, before it edges into the 118 toward Los Angeles, make a right and you’ll end up at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility. Within the barbed-wire-topped fences of the high-security jail, the Mary B. Perry High School operates as any other school — dedicated instructors, a strict curriculum and a mixed bag of students waiting to see what comes next, under the direction of the Division of Juvenile Justice, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Students, parents and faculty gathered on Friday, June 26, to celebrate the 38 graduates, 33 of whom received their high school diplomas while the rest, GEDs. In spite of guards stationed at every exit and nothing save dry brush visible through the chain-link fence from the patio of the visitors center, the black and gold streamers, cake and papier-mâché eagles on papier-mâché totems crafted by Victoria Aguilera’s art students cast an air of revelry over the stark setting. A table stocked with celebratory cake and confetti completed the scene.

Lined up outside, the students fiddled with the tassels on their caps, trying to determine which side was correct pre-ceremony. Patrick Reddick, 18, the class valedictorian, has been at the Youth Facility for just over a year. His incarceration has given him a unique perspective for choosing a career path.

“People can’t get jobs because of their reputation after being released,” said Reddick. Reddick says that he plans to continue his education and study law, which will give him an opportunity to address the “many flaws” he sees when juvenile inmates are advised by their defenders. “I’d take the time to explain to my clients what it is they’re getting into and how to make the best of it.”

Reddick graduated with a 3.7 GPA and has plans to attend college when he’s released, which he says he hopes comes in four months’ time.

As the students filed into the room, individually walking down a path through the middle of the guests, they took their seat and heard from several guest speakers who spoke of the hard work that awaits the graduates — a reality of being former prisoners entering into the working world.

“I’m not going to lecture you, I’m not going to preach to you, and I’m not going to tell you all the pie in the sky stuff because, by this time you know a little bit about what life is about,” said keynote speaker, Patrick Jefferson, Ed.D., executive vice president of student learning at Ventura College.

Jefferson related several stories of his youth, with particular emphasis on the choices he’s made that determined whether or not he’d be where he landed. The reality of instructing students within the facility is that many of them are burdened by distractions, says academic substitute teacher Annette Tussey, and that getting their attention away from their pasts and focused on the future is vital to students’ ability to make better choices.

“The kids, once you reach them, they know that they can succeed,” said Tussey. “I truly care about these kids and I want them to succeed. I know that they have potential in any school.”

Students are not only given access to the core curriculum, but also have the opportunity for studies in music, art, sciences and animals, as well as several vocational trades such as dog grooming and, approved for the 2015-16 school year, a robotics class that will give students an opportunity to learn in virtual reality.

After the ceremony, students returned their caps and gowns and mingled with their families as faculty served cake. If not for the guards and the view of the barbed wire from the cafeteria, the celebration would have seemed as though participants were plucked from any other high school in the county. Many of the students, however, come from as far away as Long Beach.

Reddick spent time with his family after the ceremony, taking pictures with his mom and others. For his valedictory speech, Reddick, like Jefferson, focused on the reality of his and his fellow students’ situations.

“I thought hard many nights about what to say until I realized it isn’t about what I say, it’s about what we’ve done as a student body, the class of 2015. Overcoming the obstacles of the streets and incarceration, surrounded by negativity … facing statistics that said we’d be dead before we saw our diplomas,” began Reddick.

Class salutatorian Cameron Chisem, 17, echoed the sentiment in his own speech, concluding in an address to his peers that “All of this is possible because we showed everyone here what we are capable of.”