The first class to graduate from the Palm Beach Lakes Community High School Fire Academy was celebrated in a ceremony May 17 at Palm Beach State College, not only for being first but also for proving what strong community partnerships can accomplish.
A Career and Technical Choice Academy offered by the School District of Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach Lakes Community High School Fire Academy provides a pathway to a high school diploma and a fire service career. It is the district’s second fire academy; Wellington High School’s started in 2013, and PBSC Fire Academy instructors teach in both programs.
Five years ago, after visiting the Wellington program, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker was convinced that a fire academy was needed in an underserved community. She started the ball rolling with a call to school board member Dr. Debra Robinson, and momentum built from there.
In 2018, the Palm Beach Lakes Community High School Fire Academy accepted its first class of ninth graders, made possible by a collaborative partnership between Palm Beach State, the School District, the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County, and JPMorgan Chase & Co., which provides grant funds that pay for the program.
At the ceremony, held in the Public Safety Conference Center on PBSC’s Lake Worth campus, Baker spoke to the audience of community partners and, especially, the graduates and their families.
“This was a vision. It all starts with a vision, and every single one of you has a vision,” she said. “I am so proud of you. I want you to continue to move forward because we rolled the dice, and we won. When we look around to see who we’re going to hire in order to be inclusive of all the people in our community, you’re a step ahead. To see that you completed this program speaks volumes about you and the families that support you.”
In addition to their high school diploma, the students earn two industry credentials: Firefighter I and Emergency Medical Responder. If the graduates choose to pursue a firefighter career, they only need to attend the PBSC Fire Academy full time for one semester post-graduation to satisfy the remaining requirements needed to sit for the state firefighter certification exam. But it won’t be their first time at PBSC. During the high school program, PBSC Fire Academy instructors trained the students at the high school campus as well as Wednesday evenings at the Lake Worth campus.
“This graduation is the culmination of four years of effort by the students,” said David Hamel, program director of the PBSC Fire Academy. “These young people have worked very hard to learn the lessons that we’ve been trying to teach them—things like leadership and teamwork, accountability, responsibility and civic duty—and they’ve made it through the program, so we want to acknowledge their efforts and continue to support them as they move into adulthood after graduation.”
Partnerships also formed within the community to support this fire academy.
The Palm Beach Lakes Community High School Fire Academy is open only to students zoned to attend the school, and with local fire rescue chiefs looking to increase diversity—a goal shared by departments nationwide—they hope the program encourages more minority students to enter the field.
David Alfonso, principal of Palm Beach Lakes Community High School, commended the contributions of the community, especially local fire rescue departments.
“We worked with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, Riviera Beach Fire Rescue, West Palm Beach Fire Rescue, everyone in the community,” Alfonso said. “When they found out that Palm Beach Lakes had a fire academy, they wanted to be a part of it and help. The fire academy wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the community.”
Graduate Jermaine Hardy exemplifies this goal. He is the recipient of a new scholarship funded by Riviera Beach Fire Rescue and Palm Beach State College. He will be employed by Riviera Beach Fire Rescue, working part-time as he continues his education as a firefighter, with Palm Beach State covering the cost of tuition for the PBSC Fire Academy. Once he has completed the training and obtained certification, he will become a full-paid career firefighter with Riviera Beach Fire Rescue.
Chief John M. Curd, Jr., of Riviera Beach Fire Rescue, was looking to create career paths for people in the community who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to pursue a fire rescue career.
“A tremendous amount of work went into creating this sponsorship,” Curd said. “We reached out to Palm Beach State College, and now with this partnership, we can continue to make sure that people have an opportunity. What better way is there to recruit and retain individuals from your community? This is the start. This is the start of something new.”
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