Wellington High School is rolling out a new program next year that its founder hopes will eventually grow an annual crop of local lifesavers.
“It’s kind of educating tomorrow’s heroes today,” Jim Marshall, Wellington High’s magnet coordinator, said about the new firefighters academy that the Palm Beach County School District approved last week for the school.
With at least 20 incoming Wellington High students already expressing interest in being in the first class, officials said the academy is part of the district’s efforts to expand career academies for teenagers who choose not to go to college.
This year’s inaugural class will consist only of ninth-graders who will take, among other things, a science class that has been reworked to become “Intro to Fire Science,” Marshall said. The class will cover topics such the nature of fire and bring in professional firefighters to speak to the students.
By the 2014-2015 school year, Marshall plans to develop a curriculum and partnerships with local agencies — such as Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue — to have students in grades 10 through 12 do hands-on training in fighting fires.
Budget constraints will likely force the new academy to be heavily dependent on such partnerships and donations for equipment and the use of fire department training facilities, said Pete Licata, the district’s choice and career options director.
The academy was placed at Wellington High because Marshall came up with the idea and took the initiative to organize it, Licata said.
Marshall, who has been at the high school since it opened in 1988, said former students gave him the idea. When county firefighters came to the school to do a “Shattered Dreams” demonstration on the dangers of drunk driving before the prom, Marshall said he noticed several of them were his former students. The plan grew from there.
“I thought with that kind of track record, what a cool idea for a program,” Marshall said. “One of the things we need to do in public education is prepare kids for public-service jobs.”
The district approved putting about 50 students per year over the next four years into the fledgling program, up to a maximum size of 200 students. The academy will start as “in-house” next year, meaning it will be restricted to students already living within Wellington High’s attendance boundaries.
But Jeraline Marsh, who oversees the criminal justice career academies for the district and helped organize the firefighters academy with Marshall, said the district will consider lifting that restriction in future years and making it a full choice program open to high school students countywide.
Wellington High is short on space, with an enrollment estimated to exceed 2,400 students, or more than 105 percent of its capacity next year, according to district projections.
Marsh said she knew of at least nine traditional high schools in the state that had firefighter academies, and several more vocational schools. But Wellington High’s will be the first of its kind in Palm Beach County, patterned after a firefighter academy at South Fort Myers High School in Lee County.
Graduates of the new program will be able to get a Firefighter I industry certification, which is enough to work as a volunteer firefighter in Florida but not a professional paid firefighter or paramedic, Marshall said.
Palm Beach State College has a post-secondary program where graduates can earn an associates degree in fire science and the certifications needed to be paramedics and professional firefighters. Marsh has been working on a partnership that would create a “pipeline” between Wellington High fire academy graduates and the state college program.
The college is consulting with her on the development of the fire academy curriculum, helping to make sure it teaches students the basic skills needed to succeed in the state college program.
The district will track the academy’s progress with an eye for possibly expanding to other schools, Licata said.
“Anything that works good and is in demand, you can bet we will replicate it elsewhere,” he said.
NEW SCHOOL CHOICES
The Palm Beach County School District has increased the number of choice academies at public schools from 183 to 257 in the last two years. Following are some of the new academies being started at district schools next year:
Wellington High School: A firefighter’s academy that will give graduates the training necessary to work as a volunteer firefighter, or pursue a higher certification in college to become a professional firefighter.
Omni Middle School: A health informatics academy at the Boca Raton school will combine medical sciences and computer technology disciplines to give middle-schoolers some basic training in the growing job field of medical data entry and coding needed for running medical offices and processing insurance forms.
Acreage Pines Elementary: A new pre-veterinary science academy will give students a very basic introductory taste of careers caring for animals.
Galaxy Elementary School: The rebuilt Boynton Beach school will open in its new environmentally-themed campus with an science academy; also focused on teaching students about environmental engineering and conservation.
L.C. Swain Middle School: The Greenacres school’s first academy, a medical sciences program, is meant to give students introductory training in several medical fields and feed graduating students into the medical sciences academy at John I. Leonard High School.