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Courant: Magnet School Prepares Students For Careers In Public Safety

Thursday October 9, 2008

Magnet School Prepares Students For Careers In Public Safety
by Kate Farrish
October 9, 2008
©The Hartford Courant


When art teacher Robin Herman asked her seventh-graders to name things that come in patterns, Matthew Clark’s hand shot up.

“Blood spatter,” Matthew, 12, said.

“When blood drops at different angles in a pattern,” the Wethersfield boy explained, “it shows where the person was when he was hurt.”

That might seem like an off-the-wall answer, but not at Matthew’s school, a new Capitol Region Education Council magnet school with a public safety theme.

The Public Safety Academy, believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation, aims to prepare students for college as well as for careers in policing, firefighting, homeland security, corrections and emergency medical treatment.

But no matter what field they ultimately enter, students will graduate with leadership skills, discipline, a strong work ethic, confidence, integrity and the ability to work well in a team, said Bill Jaeger, the school’s 29-year-old principal.

“We provide a structured environment and teach the values that are important in public safety,” he said. “Those skills are transferable to a lot of careers.”

Discipline is clearly the order of the day when Wayne Rioux, the academy’s public safety director who spent three decades in law enforcement, leads the morning exercises, barking out commands such as “ten-hut.” Some days, it’s calisthenics. Some days, the 100 students line up to patrol the school grounds.

On Thursdays, it’s time for Leadership Circle.

The students form a circle around the school flagpole and honor those who’ve behaved well or helped others. Then they’re asked to take responsibility for negative behavior and apologize to the person affected and the whole school.

Ryan Parnell, a sixth-grader from Hartford, first thanked his class for doing their work so well. Then he stepped forward and said, “I want to apologize to the teachers for my behavior the first two weeks of school.”

Ryan, 12, said he was scared to apologize, but was glad he did.

“I was not a good student at first. I had to make a change,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t me.”

In explaining the school’s approach, Rioux said, “We’re trying to teach courage. We want the students to be able to say, ‘I made a mistake, I was wrong,’ in front of their peers.”

The school had hoped to open with 150 sixth-, seventh- and ninth-graders, starting as both a middle school and high school this fall, but it didn’t obtain zoning approval until July to move into a vacant elementary school on Brainard Road. Its leaders scrambled and attracted 100 students, with 60 percent from Hartford and the remaining students from Bolton, East Windsor, Ellington, Enfield, Glastonbury, Manchester, South Windsor, Vernon, Wethersfield and Windsor Locks. Most are boys, most are black or Latino, and a high percentage of the students live in poverty. Tuition is free, and students can attend from any town.

The school plans to stay in Enfield for about three years while it looks for a permanent site in Greater Hartford.

Grades will be added each year until the school enrolls sixth- through 12th-graders, and organizers plan to have upperclassmen take college courses and to graduate trained in CPR, first aid and other public safety areas. High school students will also get field experience in public safety through internships.

Students take regular college preparatory courses in addition to the public safety programs that Rioux is adding.

On one recent morning, third-generation firefighter Jay Flanagan of the Thompsonville Fire Department demonstrated rescue equipment and talked about how firefighters are trained to handle hazardous materials. He and firefighter Brian Bigda set up a tripod and a rope, harness and pulley system, and three girls lifted Dan Dzen, a seventh-grader from South Windsor, into the air.

Rioux didn’t let the lesson end without pointing out how the firefighters use reading, math, science, leadership and teamwork on the job.

Steve Cassano, a former mayor of Manchester, came up with the idea for the academy nearly three years ago, after seeing towns struggle to hire qualified police officers and firefighters. He took the idea to CREC and formed an advisory board with public safety leaders including Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts and Hartford Fire Chief Charles A. Teale.

“We think the school is going to have a significant impact on public safety in the state,” Cassano said.

Organizers looked for similar schools around the country and found nothing that offers exposure to the range of public safety careers that the academy will.

“We looked all over and found that nothing exists,” Cassano said. “We’re the first in the country.”

Academy students began the school year wearing white shirts and khaki pants, and have had to “earn” the academy’s blue or yellow uniform shirts through good behavior and by writing a letter to Jaeger about their commitment to the academy. Sometimes, he has kicked the letters back to them to be rewritten.

Jaeger, who has master’s degrees from Trinity College and Harvard University, delayed work on his doctorate to take the job.

“Who wouldn’t want the chance to be principal at a new magnet school?” he said.

Matthew Clark has wanted to be a firefighter for as long as he can remember, and he frequently visits his dad, Dave Clark, a lieutenant in the Wethersfield Fire Department, at work. His mother, Kelly, works in the department, too, on recruiting and retaining firefighters. Matthew, who learned about blood spatter at the academy’s summer program, said he doesn’t mind getting up at 6 a.m. every day for the long bus ride to Enfield.

“This is the school that, better than any other school, will prepare us for what we want to do in life,” he said. “They expect more of you than a regular school.”

Parents of academy students say they’ve already noticed a change in their children.

“She’s more self-disciplined about her chores and more helpful and more considerate with her younger sister,” Aminatah Camara said of her daughter, Kenami Murrell, a seventh-grader at the academy.

Kenami, who wants to be a scientist or doctor, didn’t get into her first two choices, the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School in Hartford or Two Rivers Magnet School in East Hartford. But she got accepted at the Public Safety Academy and decided to try it for one year. Her mother says she likes it.

“The physical education class is very vigorous, which is good, and the teachers and staff are very consistent in their discipline, which I like,” Camara said.

Link: http://courant.com/news/education/hc-publicsafety1008.artoct09,0,2564234.story