The City of Chicago has been in the national news for most of the year due in large part to the city’s upswing of gang violence resulting in weekly tragedies which make the evening news and national publications. Unfortunately this ongoing national attention is not the kind of visibility the good people of this great American city welcome. While many may focus on what needs to be fixed with Chicago, I want to share my recent experience while visiting real classroom heroes who are making an incredible difference in the lives of the students they teach.
It was just prior to 4:30 PM when we arrived at the Police Academy. Upon entering the building, we were greeted by Officer Paul Chester. Paul shared a broad smile and a hearty handshake with each of us before leading us into a large auditorium where the students were receiving instructions. Once inside the auditorium, Paul introduced us to Ms. Sandra Irizarry, the Career and Technical Education Program Manager for the Law, Public Safety, and Security Cluster at CPS in the Office of College and Career Success Department. From the moment we met Sandra, we could sense how proud she was of her students and their instructors. Sandra proceeded to provide us with an overview of the Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy (CPFTA).
To get into the program, students must complete an application their sophomore year. Each year the CPFTA receives over 500 student applications for 125 cadet slots. The cadets come from schools all over the Chicago area, both from public and private high schools, and represent a cross section of the city’s residents from every race and social economic background. Students attend their assigned high schools each day with their peers and then make the commitment to attend the CPFTA each Tuesday and Wednesday from 4:30 PM to 7:30 PM. We later found out from a discussion with students that many of them travel up to an hour and a half each way using public transportation to get to and from the CPFTA classrooms. One young woman shared with us that she leaves her house at 5:00 AM to take public transportation to get to her high school and on CPFTA nights, she gets home around 9:30 PM. She then does her high school homework and finally gets to bed around midnight. You have to admire this level of commitment.
The CPFTA offers courses and certifications in Safety, Law Enforcement and Fire Science. The cadets wear appropriate uniforms for their program of study and they are organized into squads. Just as required by adult police and fire academies, physical training (PT) is incorporated into the curriculum. An obvious impact of the program was the physical health of the students. They were physically fit and as we later discovered, many of the students participate in student sports and welcomed the strength and conditioning the program provided to them. The squads reminded me of my military training, where I learned firsthand that it is about the unit and not the individual. By organizing the cadets into squads, instructors teach the value of working in teams and the need to support one another. If a student makes a mistake – the team made a mistake. We noted a squad in the hallway doing pushups. Using this method, cadets quickly learn the importance of squad member interdependence and consequences for the actions of others. The CPS CPFTA operates on an annual budget of around $180,000 and receives no Carl D. Perkins funds from the state. The Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department each contribute financially [$65,000] to the program. At 125 students the program costs a mere $1,440 per cadet. I will come back to this later in my story.
After completing her overview, Sandra arranged for us to hold two discussion sessions with students. The first thing that jumped out at you after each student introduced themselves with a handshake and smile was the professionalism they demonstrated to us. They responded to our questions with “yes sir or yes ma’am” and “no sir or no ma’am” depending upon which of us had asked a question. The students had an aura of confidence that exceeded their age and I found them to be concise and articulate in their responses. I want to share what I learned from the cadets. The cadets had varying future goals with many of the students planning to pursue college including additional firefighter, police officer, and emergency medical technician training. Some of the students already have plans to join the military. I asked the cadets what they thought was the most valuable thing they had learned from their CPFTA program. One male student responded with “respect for authority.” I noticed the group of students all nodding their heads. He went on to share that before entering CPFTA, he had never had a male in his life to teach him the importance of respecting others. He finished his response by stating that the instructors in the CPFTA look after their students and genuinely want them to succeed in life. Again all the students were nodding their heads in agreement. Another student said, “respect for all people and a better understanding of accepting differences in people.” A female student stated, “how to be self-sufficient while also being accountable to your partner and your squad.” At this point a student spoke up saying, “I now realize that cops are just like us. At the end of the day, they just want to safely go home to their families.” He then proudly proclaimed that he wanted to go to college to study law enforcement and eventual become a police officer. As I asked each student the same question, I heard responses such as leadership, partnership, how to work with others, hands on learning, discipline, the value of character, how to face your fears, how to handle stress, how to work with professionals, how to socialize, the value of education, how to be held to a standard of behavior and performance, and the importance of being mature. Remember, these answers are from 17 and 18 year old students. Remarkable! As we were leaving the Police Academy, my only regret was that I wish more of our leaders and parents could experience the interaction we had with these students. The chance to meet and talk with these students would inspire anyone who worries about our education system and future of our country.
We next traveled a few blocks away to the Fire Academy. Here Sandra introduced us to Captain Frank Brim of the Chicago Fire Department and Derek Glowacz, a CPS educator supporting the program. As soon as I met Captain Brim, I knew he was a natural leader. He greeted us with a solid handshake and a welcoming smile. Captain Brim walked us through his facility and shared his student philosophy, “Young people rise up. Kick life in the butt or it will kick you in the butt.” We all laughed at his frank assessment of life, but we knew he was correct. Captain Brim showed us his impressive facility where cadets learn ladder climbing, repelling, hose management, and EMT skills. We took the stairs up to the building roof and looked at the city skyscape. He talked about the beauty of the city and the hardships and misery he has seen firsthand. He spoke of taking kids and turning them into men and women who can make a difference in the world. In addition to gaining the technical skills associated with being a firefighter or EMT, Captain Brim, Derek and the other instructors work with their cadets to develop their life skills. Just as with the Police Academy, the cadets learn respect for others, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking and problem solving, personal accountability, the value of character, and what it means to be a mature adult. Captain Brim’s students learn the meaning of standards of performance and an appreciation for his mantra, “good is the enemy of best!” As he spoke, Captain Brim was optimistic for the future of Chicago. I could tell he was under no illusion that it would be easy, but he believed in his cadets and their future impact on making the city a great place to live.
We walked back down from the roof and met with a group of cadets attending the Fire Academy. Again I asked the cadets what they learned through their program of study. The responses were now familiar: respect for others, discipline, the value of education, accountable to others, teamwork, self-esteem, what it means to have a family (their instructors and fellow students), how to respond to pressure, how to overcome fear, and how to respect authority. The cadets’ responses to my question of what happens next after graduation were just as telling, “going to college, entering military service, applying to the City of Chicago Fire Academy, teaching, and my favorite- I am going to work hard to be the next Chicago Fire Commissioner.” The students were amazing. They were poised, confident, professional, articulate, and open with their comments.
At this point, we had reached the end of the school day for the cadets and many had to catch public transportation home, so we said our farewells and sat down with Captain Brim, Sandra and Derek to wrap up our visit. During our discussion, I asked to learn more about the cadets. We learned that some of the students were homeless, one young man had lost his mom to an illness and was now losing his dad. Captain Brim and the other instructors are the often the caring trusted adult in these young men and women’s lives. For example, one time a student called Captain Brim for help after an auto accident where no one was injured. As our hosts spoke, we knew that they love their jobs and took great pride in the success of their students. It was getting late and we wanted our hosts to get home to their families so we said our goodbyes and let them lock up the building.
As we drove back to our hotel, we recalled the things we had learned during our visit. One item that stuck out to us was the impact these heroes were having on these cadets and how much more they could accomplish with some additional resources. Captain Brim works a full day as a Firefighter and then volunteers at the Fire Academy to take young men and women and develop them into well rounded adults. Sandra also works hours well beyond what could be expected to support her students. Her inspirational leadership and belief in what CPS can accomplish is remarkable considering the small budget she has for this program. Heroes to all, we were amazed at the dedication of Derek Glowacz, Officer Chester, and Elaine Wilson, the CPS Teacher site coordinator. The cadets completing the CPFTA have been challenged by their instructors to meet exceptional standards of performance and behavior and have succeeded in meeting this challenge. They entered the CPFTA as children and left as young men and women ready to determine their destiny. I for one look forward to seeing the future they will build for us.
UPDATE: I am pleased to congratulate CPFTA on the success of their students and incredibly moved by the cadets’ professionalism and maturity. My team was excited to give back to the program with a $1,000 donation. I appreciate the hard work and opportunity that Officer Chester, Captain Brimm, and the staff provide for these cadets. Without educators like these individuals, making a difference in these young people’s lives would not be possible.