Life in California's vast Central Valley can at times seem disheartening. Educational attainment levels are low and air quality is poor, to name two quality-of-life gauges. But once in a while, something comes along that renews our faith in our ability to roll up our collective sleeves and create real change for the better.

One such story is the success of Project BEST, a 20-year-old undertaking directed at a youth demographic with a troubling tendency to fall through society's cracks: black male teens. Two decades ago, black students' dropout rate was 40 percent higher than for the Kern High School District overall, and black males were quitting school at a rate 70 percent higher than that of black females -- or so The Californian reported in a series of articles in 1994. Stunned and alarmed, community activists got busy and turned things around.

The evidence was abundant last week at a scholarship announcement event in Bakersfield for Project BEST, or Black Excellence in Scholarship and Teaching. Thanks to people like Gayle Batey, a local real estate agent who got the effort started with $50,000 in donated seed money, the project has produced measurable results.

The KHSD's 2012 dropout rate was 14.5 percent overall, half what it was in 1994 -- 29.3 percent. Black students' dropout rate is not much higher -- 17.6 percent. Where before black students' dropout rate was 40 percent below the overall number, it's now just 18 percent higher. Black males are actually staying in school at a slightly higher rate than black females.

What does it all mean? It means there is still much work to be done to lower the dropout rate for all Kern County high school students. But it also means that this direct intervention is working, and that the conscientious work of people who truly care can be a powerful thing. And that is very much a heartening thing.