CPFTA - Chicago Police and Firefighter Academy

Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy

Making teensĀ“ climb a little easier

Wed, 11/14/2007

The eyes of the three burly Chicago high school students were as wide as Kennedy half-dollars as they took in the steep incline of the 100-foot metal ladder winding its way up five stories to the roof of the Chicago Fire Department Training Academy.

Willie White of North Lawndale, Joseph Felton of DuSable and Keith Stiggers of Bogan stood silently as they watched dozens of other Chicago 11th graders gingerly scale the snorkel ladder as it vibrated from the crisp wind in the shadow of the Sears Tower.

Even though the16-year-olds were all afraid of heights, they knew that if they wanted to pursue their dream jobs of working for the Chicago Fire Department their biggest hurdle lay within themselves.

"Even when I'm changing light bulbs at home, the ladder's too high," White said as his voice trailed off nervously into a whisper. "I'm just going to do it; we ain't got no choice anyway. I ain't gonna give up. I'm gonna do it."

Standing next to him, Felton echoed his fears.

"I'm thinking about how I'm going to get up there without falling. I don't know how I'm going to do it," he said.

The students are taking part in a two-year after-school program run jointly by the Chicago Public Schools' Education to Careers program, the city's Police and Fire Departments and the City Colleges of Chicago to give public and private high school students firsthand exposure to public-safety careers.

The Chicago Police and Fire Fighter Training Academy began more than eight years ago and currently has 199 11th- and 12th-grade students.They begin the program as juniors and continue through their senior year of high school, said Sandra Castillo, special projects coordinator for the Education to Careers program.

The students meet three days a week for several hours and split the year between the Fire and Police Departments. Among other requirements for being accepted in the program, students must have at least a 2.0 grade-point average, have had an attendance rate of at least 95 percent and pass a drug test.

The students have the opportunity to participate in two paid summer internships with the city and receive credits toward their high school graduation requirements for public service.

After completing the program, they are entitled to receive a two-year tuition waiver toward an associates degree in any of the City Colleges of Chicago, Castillo said.

One of the program's aims is to provide a pool of qualified applicants for both agencies, officials said.

"I think it was the experience of a lifetime. I learned that anything is doable with a little help," said Stiggers, who like White and Felton scaled the ladder with the other students.

Cmdr. Frank Perry, who oversees the program for the Fire Department, said they do more than simply train good future firefighters and police officers. They are trying to get the students to believe in themselves and their own potential. The program offers opportunities and "life skills" lessons to students, Perry said.

Among the topics that students cover are warning signs of teen domestic violence, criminal justice issues and first-aid.

"We teach these kids everything from the simple basics of standing still when you talk to a superior and how it translates to when you want to go get a job," Perry said. "A lot of people don't know or don't have family members who are firefighters, especially the minority kids. So now they know what it takes."

Chicago Police Officer Paul Chester said that they also hope that the students can take back what they learn to the communities, which may have negative views of police officers and firefighters.

"Our job is to let them know that they are walking in the shadow of two great careers and they need to learn from both sides," Chester said.

Along with the free tuition and credits toward graduation, selected 12th-grade students are able to take additional course work to prepare them to become emergency medical technicians on private ambulances. They then can take a state exam to be certified as paramedics.

At the Chicago Police Academy recently students were engaged in grueling exercises under the direction of Larry Snelling, the academy's physical-skills instructor whose booming voice directed them in drills that included sit-ups, push-ups and an exercise called "the dead man's crawl," which required students to slide along the floor using only their arms.

One student taking part was Jesus Sustaita, a Schurz High School senior in the second year of the program. He said his aim is to take what he has learned and use it to help others.

"I'm doing something for my future," said Sustaita. "This is what I want to achieve, this is really what I want to become."

Peggy Lapke, whose 19-year-old son, Luke, graduated from the program last year, said he is attending Malcolm X College on the scholarship he earned. He graduated last June from Gordon Tech High School and earned his EMT certification. He is now interviewing with private ambulance companies with the hope of one day becoming a Chicago Fire Department paramedic, Lapke said.

"The program really gives them discipline and direction ... you really have to be determined to stick with it," she said.