New high school to blaze career trails
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 24, 2004

Mel MelÚndez

Academies are geared to public service


Anthony Torres has a plan.

The 17-year-old law enforcement student will graduate from Metro Tech High School in May and apply to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to work as a detention officer while simultaneously earning a criminal justice degree from Phoenix College. Then Torres hopes to become a police officer, preferably in Phoenix.

"I want to do undercover work, because I grew up in the projects and saw how drugs destroy dreams," he said. "I want to fight that to help better my community."

It's a lofty goal. But it's one in sync with a recent initiative proposed by Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon that could help boost the number of Phoenix high school students seeking public service careers.

Gordon wants to partner with local school districts to launch performance high schools in public safety, banking, bioscience, nursing and teaching. Phoenix Union is the first school district to work with the city toward that objective.

The endeavor highlights a national trend where school districts are building smaller schools or splitting larger campuses into cozier school environments where many students, especially minorities and the disadvantaged, often thrive.

"Our governing board had proposed the idea of launching several small career-prep schools about two or three years ago," said Art Lebowitz, assistant superintendent for instruction for the 23,000-student district. "So when the mayor approached us last year we knew this would be a good match."

Luckily, residents also saw the need for these schools, he added.

Voters approved a $205 million bond in November, of which $22 million will go toward five small high schools. The first school, tentatively called First Responder Academy, will debut at Metro Tech, a free magnet school with two-dozen technical programs, including fire science and law enforcement.

The goal is to revamp Metro Tech's two-year fire science and law enforcement programs before First Responder moves to its permanent site in fall 2005. The school likely will relocate to a renovated Franklin School, a shuttered facility across from the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

City officials worked to secure $300,000 from the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission to renovate the school, which will serve ninth- through 12th-graders. Phoenix's Fire and Police departments are already working with the district to increase offerings at the proposed 400-student high school. They've already suggested that Spanish be mandatory, Lebowitz said.

"There is such a need for Spanish in public-safety jobs that we're seriously considering this as a requirement," he said. "These are the kind of suggestions we welcome because it's another marketable skill for our kids."

About 250 students are now enrolled in Metro Tech's law-enforcement and fire-science programs, where students enroll as juniors. But once the school moves to its permanent site, students will begin dabbling in their career training as freshmen.

"I wish I could've done that," said Torres, who splits his day between Metro Tech and Central High School. "I think that's a great idea because students could see even earlier if these are the careers they really want to pursue."

Torres, who's on Metro Tech's Principal's List, credits the one-on-one support and mentorship opportunities offered at the school with much of his success. Learning from veteran police officers, such as law enforcement instructor Jim Milstead, a retired Phoenix police lieutenant, also helps, he added.

The training isn't easy, Milstead said. In addition to stressing leadership skills and job training, including fingerprinting, forensics and other crime scene analysis, students undergo a six-week police academy with strenuous physical fitness tests at the school's obstacle course.

"We patterned our academy after the city's (police) academy because the kids need to get an idea of what will be expected of them," Milstead said. "Those physical agility tests are no walk in the park, and public safety jobs are very competitive."

For example, a recent job search for a handful of Phoenix firefighter positions yielded more than 3,000 applicants, he said.

"So programs like these could give kids the edge because they start training early and know what to expect," Milstead said.

High school graduates 18 or older can apply for Phoenix firefighter positions or the Sheriff's Office, but they must be 21 to work as police officers. Those 18 years old can apply for the police cadets program.

Regardless, the city and school district hope that most students will go on to college. In fact, the school district is speaking to Maricopa Community Colleges about offering college-level fire science and criminal justice coursework at First Responder to encourage them to continue in school.

"We're really stressing that, because getting an associate's degree will help them get promoted later," said Bill Scheel, senior assistant to the mayor. "But even if these kids should opt for other careers after high school, that's OK. These programs create better citizens, and we all benefit from that."

Reach the reporter at
mel.melendez@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-821