Inaugural Firefighter Academy deemed success by district and community partners

girl student shakes handsBeing a firefighter is not easy.

When disaster strikes, the job requires an individual to react with precision, discipline, and a sense of selflessness. Firefighters are asked to be brave on a regular basis, not as an option, but as a requirement.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 24 DeKalb County School District (DCSD) students proved they were worthy of such a task.

As part of a partnership between DCSD, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, and DeKalb County Fire Rescue, a group of students from Arabia Mountain, Cedar Grove, McNair, Miller Grove, and Southwest DeKalb high schools obtained Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 technical college certifications, making them the inaugural graduates of the DCSD Firefighter Academy. The students received official recognition on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

“This is the first class graduating with firefighter certification and a high school diploma during the same week and month. It’s phenomenal,” said Superintendent/CEO Dr. R. Stephen Green. “They are paving new pathways in our Career, Technical & Agricultural Education (CTAE) pathways. This doesn’t happen without partnerships with parents, the partnership with DeKalb County Fire Rescue, and a partnership with Georgia Piedmont Technical College. This doesn’t happen by accident, but by design, and by a true dedication from all of us coming together for this groundbreaking moment.”

Over the course of the 2018-2019 school year, the 24 students—the majority of which are female (16 students)—traveled to McNair High School for half a school day to work with college professors and DeKalb Fire Rescue professionals. Each day of instruction was filled with lessons on operating hoses, CPR, and other emergency management tactics. For certain lessons, the students spent their Saturdays doing fieldwork in rural settings.

The only requirements for eligibility are students must be juniors or seniors on track for graduation, and able to pass the Georgia Piedmont Technical College placement exam. In return, students receive Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 technical certifications, as well as 29 college credit hours.

“When you talk about workforce ready, these students are coming out ready to work now. There’s no delays or pause for the cause, they’re coming out ready to work,” said Dr. Green. “This is a proud moment for us. Where some people run from the fire, these students choose to run to the fire. It takes a lot of training, fortitude, and heart. These students are an inspiration to others coming behind them who are watching them. They’re saying, ‘They did it, I can do it too.’”

According to CTAE Instructional Coordinator Tom McFerrin, the program was founded to pique the interest of all students—not just those seeking entry to colleges and universities.

“We always need to look at what works for all of our students in the district. We have many students who may not be ready for a four-year college, so this experience to receive training as a firefighter could start them immediately in the job force after graduation from high school,” McFerrin said.

In addition, McFerrin explained that many seniors have already met graduation requirements by the time their last year of high school begins. Instead of taking less-demanding elective courses, work-based learning programs such as the DCSD Firefighter Academy, provide chances for students to receive hands-on training before graduation.

“Work-based learning gives students opportunities to work, intern, or shadow outside of a school environment,” McFerrin said. “It also teaches them valuable lessons to succeed in the workplace, including communications skills, work ethic, and timeliness.”

According to Executive Director of Student Advancement, Manomay Malathip, the students have already had to put their training to use. Earlier in the 2018-2019 school year, a building near to McNair High School experienced an elevator malfunction. Instead of calling DeKalb County Fire Rescue, occupants chose to call the DCSD Firefighter Academy.

Georgia Piedmont Technical College President, Dr. Tavarez Holston, said people will be talking about the DCSD Firefighter Academy for years to come.

“We are so proud of you,” Holston said. “We’re focused on making sure our graduates have a W-2 when they leave—a job. These students have a future in saving lives. They are inspiring to me.”

Firefighter Academy studentsDeKalb County Fire Rescue officials—Chief of Training W. Roberts and Deputy Chief Jason Smith—hailed the program’s ability to foster a trade while simultaneously providing a quality education. Both DeKalb Fire Rescue representatives also lauded the students’ diligence.

“One of the frustrating things about working in government is that, sometimes, the wheels of progress are square and you drag them everywhere you go. That was not the case with this program,” said Smith. “These students are on track to be productive members of society, a help the community, and of service.”

DCSD Associate Superintendent Dr. Knox Phillips called the DCSD Firefighter Academy a great example of the “village” concept—the students included.

“When we talk about preparing our young folk for the future, and providing opportunities when they leave us, it takes all of us coming together. There are a lot of folks who came together with one goal: to see our students succeed,” Dr. Phillips said. “Students, you are entering a profession to save lives. I want you to think about that as you further your training and further your career. You’re part of what allows us to sleep well at night. You’re there when there’s problems. You’re there to solve issues. You know in your heart that what you’re doing is more noble than anything you’ve ever done before. Thank you so much for your commitment.”

Dr. Phillips hopes to replicate the DCSD Firefighter Academy concept with local law enforcement in the near future.

DeKalb County Board of Education member Diijon Dacosta—who considered becoming an emergency respondent before entering education—praised the DCSD Firefighter Academy for producing honorable graduates. He addressed them directly on May 22.

“One of the things my mother told me growing up was, ‘Diijon, you may not be able to pay for a beautiful house or a nice car for me, but one thing I want you to do is make me proud. Give me the opportunity to go my job and brag on you,’” said Dacosta. “I’m pretty sure a lot of your parents are on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and posting pictures of you all, saying ‘My baby did it two times.’