New York City Offers Firefighting 101 at New High School
Program Urges Minority Students to Mull Careers With the Fire Department
At age 14, Cesar Guzman is determined to become a firefighter.
“I want to save people,” he says. “I’ll get respect.” Also, he hopes that landing a career with the Fire Department of New York might get him out of Brooklyn, as it did for a friend of the family. “It made a life for him,” Cesar says. “He’s living in Long Island in a house and he’s happy.”
Cesar Guzman’s dreams aren’t the mere musings of a teenager. He’s one of 104 students attending the FDNY High School for Fire and Life Safety, which opened here in September and is jointly run by the city’s fire department and department of education.
While the school aims to prepare students for college, it also seeks to expand career options for African-American and Latino youths by introducing them to jobs in the fire department, possibly as paramedics, physicians, photographers, inspectors, or firefighters.
Salaries for New York City firefighters range from $36,800 to $58,000 a year, depending on experience. Currently, 92 percent of the city’s 11,117 firefighters are white. Just 35 firefighters are women.
The new high school “is one more way the department is working to diversify its ranks,” said Mike Loughran, a spokesman for the city’s fire department.
Most of the high school’s students are black and Latino; 34 students are girls, and 70 are boys.
“Because of the close relationship with the fire department, we have a foot in the door,” says Raymond T. Palmer, the school’s principal. “Our young people will be given the opportunity to work in the fire department if they so desire.”
At the least, he said, the school will offer students the chance to become emergency medical technicians if they take certain elective courses and pass a certification exam. To be firefighters, they would have to take 30 college credit hours and pass a fire-department test.
A few months into the school’s first year, student morale seems high. But several adults here say the school will be stronger if it can attract more students who are truly interested in the school’s theme.
‘Making Education Fun’
Victor Herbert, the dean of instruction for the fire department, who helped start the school, said the school was at a disadvantage for recruiting students because it was approved last February, three months after most other high schools in the 1.1 million-student school system had begun recruiting.
“Some parents thought, ‘The fire department can fix anything,’ ” said Mr. Herbert. So, he added, some students were urged by their parents to enroll even though they don’t want to be here.
Mr. Herbert expects a larger pool of applicants for the coming school year, which in turn should make it easier to select students according to their level of interest.
The High School for Fire and Life Safety, located in the Brooklyn borough, is one of 91 small schools that opened in the nation’s largest school system in September. The city’s department of education has received $51.2 million from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help it promote and open 67 new small high schools. ("In N.Y.C., Fast-Paced Drive for Small Schools," June 23, 2004.) The theme of firefighting is “making education fun,” said Mr. Palmer, who grew up nearby but now lives in New Jersey.
“There’s this thing that happens with young people.” he said. “They are very enthusiastic about learning when they are young, but that enthusiasm starts to wane as they become older. We want to rekindle that.”
Students spend one 45-minute class period at least two days a week with former firefighters. In a recent class, students practiced safety skits that they planned to perform for local elementary schools. In one skit, a boy awoke to a fire in his room. He dropped to the floor to get underneath any smoke and crawled to an exit.
Some students also participate in Explorers—a weekly after-school program led by firefighters. Once this past fall, the firefighters brought a firetruck to the school and let students practice using the truck’s water hoses in the schoolyard.
Darrell M. Bennett, 52, retired from firefighting in his mid-40s, and now teaches fire-prevention classes at the school.
Mr. Bennett, an African-American, says black youths typically don’t have much exposure to firefighting. He hopes he’s planting the idea among minority youths to become firefighters.
His own interest in firefighting was encouraged by a white fireman who invited him into a Brooklyn firehouse as a teenager.
When asked if the fire department has discriminated against people of color in its hiring, Mr. Bennett said, “I’ve heard of [such] things, but I can’t prove it.”
The veteran firefighter is pleased with the school, but disappointed that it admitted “some kids who have criminal records and don’t have respect—and are a cancer to the program. This is not the program for straightening these kids out,” he said.
Mr. Bennett spent five months in 1993 recovering from life-threatening burns after being engulfed by a fire while on the job, and he knew 21 of the 343 firefighters who died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
When telling students not to play with fire, Mr. Bennett pulls up a pant leg and rolls back his shirt sleeves to show them the skin grafts he received after his body was covered with burns.
He takes it personally if students show what he interprets as disrespect for firefighting, such as by wearing their uniform shirts untucked.
Mr. Herbert confirmed a New York Post report that one of the school’s students was arrested in the fall for starting a rubbish fire on a subway platform in Queens. “It’s the kind of event that can embarrass everyone,” Mr. Herbert said, adding that the student was suspended and transferred to another school.
For most of the school day, students are expected to buckle down and improve their core academic skills. They are all 9th graders. The school will add other grades in subsequent years.
The students’ daily schedule consists of 90-minute periods of English and mathematics, and 45-minute periods of science and social studies. On some days they also take the fire prevention and safety class while on other days they have physical education class.
Some of the students’ skills lag behind where they should be for the 9th grade.
In a recent class, students took turns reading aloud Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a book about a shepherd boy who learns various lessons about life while on a journey.
In one reading group of three boys, two of the students jumped at the chance to read out loud, but the third refused to read until his teacher, Johane Ligondé, sat down with the group. The boy read some sentences fluently, but got stuck on words such as “afraid” and “existence.”
Some students said they are getting more attention from teachers in their new school than they did in their former public schools. Fourteen-year-old Akiis Sanchez commented that the school’s science teacher “teaches us like we’re in college.”
Students expressed pride in the required school uniforms: navy-blue slacks and a bright blue shirt with a fire department patch on one sleeve.
“I like the patch,” said Christina Ramos, “When we walk down the street, we get a lot of respect.” But she wants to be a baseball player, not a firefighter.
Christina is one of a handful of students who live close enough to walk to school. Other students commute more than an hour by bus or subway.
The High School for Fire and Life Safety takes up one wing of the five-story Thomas Jefferson High School, which will be phased out over the next several years. The school for firefighters and several other small schools will take over the space.
The brick school, built in 1923, takes up a whole block along a thoroughfare of the Brownsville/East New York neighborhood. The building stands across from a strip of well-kept two- and three-story row houses that is marred by two abandoned houses.
Not only is the new school about encouraging teenagers to become firefighters, but it also uses the values of firefighters to inspire youths to live up to their potential, said Mr. Herbert of the fire department.
“The prime objective,” he said, “is to come into a community where diploma achievement has been low and see if we can change that.”
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