Preparing the future

Published on July 7, 2016 in

Students across Detroit gain real-world skills to prepare for life after graduation.

Photos by Bruce Unwin. Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Dave Phillips.

Two cars sat wrecked along a stretch of Detroit pavement, and a team of people surveyed the wreckage in an attempt to quickly solve several issues.

The most critical problem was a dashboard pinned tightly against the driver’s seat, and a handful of workers were able assess the situation and make use of special tools to push the dashboard away.

The workers looked the part, but were not firefighters – not yet, anyway. They’re seniors at Cody High School’s Medicine and Community Health Academy (MCH), and they were working a simulated car crash while training to become certified firefighters, an opportunity afforded to them through their school, thanks to United Way’s Education work.

Our College and Career Pathways program combines academics, technical education and real world experience to set high school students up for success after graduation. It’s an integrated program of study that makes core college-prep academic coursework relevant and engaging while giving students real-world skills and exposing them to the world of work.

Detroit Fire Department Lts. Jamal Mickles and Anthony Watts are the instructors for the firefighting program at Cody MCH, one of 16 College and Career Pathways schools in Southeastern Michigan. They say the students go through the exact same training that any fire cadet would experience.

In addition to their roles as instructors, they’re mentors for the kids, and trust is a key component of their relationships with the students.

“Before any of these youth care anything about what I’m trying to teach them, they need to know that I genuinely care about them,” Jamal said. “It comes from a deep-rooted genuine care, and they know that, and that’s why they’re able to be so accepting of us.”

Detroit Fire Department Lt. Jamal Mickles, one of the program’s instructors.

Detroit Fire Department Lt. Anthony Watts, one of the program’s instructors.

A proven approach

As of 2018, we’re in 16 schools, providing College and Career Pathways curriculum to 8,500 Detroit Public Schools Community District students. The plan is to expand to 20 schools by 2019, training 10,000 students in one of many important and growing regional industries, including advanced manufacturing, health care, information technology, digital communications, engineering and public service.

Those enrolled in Cody’s firefighting program attend typical classes in the morning. A bus then picks them up and transports them to the fire training academy for the afternoon. It’s one of many programs available that allows students to explore a world they may otherwise never see. This program equips students with real-world skills that allow for immediate success after high school, according to Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp, Chief Operating Officer at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

“A community is not going to grow, it’s not going to thrive, until you have solutions for every citizen and you empower all of the brainpower in that community,” Tanya said.

The program is unique because it offers something for every student, from those struggling with the basics all the way to the most advanced learners.

“This is an approach to high school that benefits our entire community and every student,” Tanya said. “What this does is put students in cooperative learning opportunities. It gives everybody the ability to go all the way up an escalator, but they’re the ones that decide when and where they get off.”

The program builds upon work United Way has done in Detroit schools over the last eight years, which was focused on improving graduation rates. While finishing high school is still a focal point, students now have more choices when they complete high school.

“We want to continue to drive graduation rates up, but we also want to make these diplomas have power, so when you come out with your diploma, you can either go into a job — because you have a skill that somebody wants to pay for — or you can go to a college or university or apprenticeship program,” she said.

Detroit Fire Department Lt. Anthony Watts, one of the program’s instructors.

The learning process

At Cody, that power comes in the form of Firefighter I and II certifications, which are state requirements for firefighters, and which graduates of the program will have by the time they receive their diplomas.

“It’s a great opportunity for the children because it gives them that skill set when they get out of high school, so these kids are jumping ahead of the curve,” Anthony said. “It’s been a great experience being able to watch them grow through this program and actually evolve into what we saw them as from the beginning.”

Cortez Wilform, a student in the program, plans to study architectural engineering in college. He said the things he’s learning can come in handy both personally and professionally.

“We’re learning about how to save somebody’s life and all of the steps to take and precautions you’ve got to be aware of,” he said.

“In school, I’ll be a little ahead of the game because l know how to do the firewalls and the fire windows and where the sprinklers go. They also taught me different structures of a house, and that helped me a whole lot. Now I go home and pay attention to my house and how it was built and it gives me ideas on how I can design buildings in the future.”

Alexius Burg said she joined the program because she was looking for a challenge.

“You’re going to learn something new, you’re going to see something new and you might get scared and not know what to do, but that’s how you learn,” she said.

Alexius doesn’t necessarily plan on being a professional firefighter, but she is glad to have a backup plan, especially one that could pave a trail for women. The program at Cody has more females than males in attendance, and she hopes it continues that way.

“When you think about being a firefighter, you think about men,” she said. “We met a couple of females, but not a lot. I just really wish I could see a lot of female firefighters because we can do anything a man can do.”

Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy senior Alexius Burg.

Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy senior Cortez Wilform.

It takes a family

Firefighters often bring a sense of community to their job, and that was certainly the case for Anthony, whose career began at the firehouse in his neighborhood.

“This program really allows us to pass that sense of community to the children,” he said. “It kind of gives them an opportunity to help out in their neighborhood and get that good feeling that we get as community servants as well.”

Anthony said he enjoys having discussions with the students while sharing meals in the firehouse. The kids feel comfortable talking about life with their instructors, and Anthony and Jamal also advise them on topics that aren’t directly related to firefighting, like how to prepare for a job interview.

“This program is so much more than just firefighting,” he said. “When you’re in a firehouse, you’re part of a family. I love being able to just share that sense of family and caring about the individuals in your household, because it is a second home for us.”

For Cortez, the family side of firefighting runs even deeper. He talks about the program every day at home, and his 14-year-old sister is interested in nursing and health care. She visited Cody MCH in May as part of EMS Week and Cortez was able to teach her how to perform CPR.

“It gave us a better connection with each other because now we can sit and talk and give each other helpful tips on what we do,” he said.

Alexius also takes what she’s learned and applies it within her household.

“On my birthday, I was like ‘I don’t want anything else for my birthday; I just want to teach you all CPR and we can buy an AED (defibrillator),’ ” she said. Her goal is for everyone in the house to know how to use the defibrillator in case of an emergency.

Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy students assemble a fire hose and learn how to properly supply water and foam to it.

Importance of mentorship

Jamal and Anthony are instructors for the program, but to the kids involved, they’re much more.

“They’re not just my lieutenants – we formed a relationship,” Alexius said. “We went to baseball games and we did stuff outside of school. It’s pretty fun. They’re kind of like our dads or uncles.”

Alexius said she is comfortable talking to either instructor about her problems.

“It feels pretty good that you’ve got somebody that does care, even if you’ve got nobody else at home,” she said.

Jamal knows how important the role of mentor can be. His house caught fire when he was 5 years old, and he looked at the firefighters who saved it as superheroes. From that point on, he knew he wanted to be a firefighter but was not sure how to make it happen until he joined a program similar to the College and Career Pathways model.

“Being able to turn around and do the very thing that was done for me, and to grab a city youth and to point them toward the direction of success and to be involved in their pattern of success, that’s been a huge deal for me,” he said.

Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy senior Alexius Burg sits aboard a fire truck.

Growth is evident

“For this group specifically, the amount of growth I’ve seen in them is just exponential,” Jamal said. “I’m blown away by it. It became very easy to care and be in a close relationship with all of our youth because they’re just such bright individuals, and then to hear some of their stories of some of the obstacles they have to overcome just to make it to school every day, it gives me a sense of greater respect. I’ve been able to build on that respect and that basic love of human beings to come into a relationship with them, and that has been a great thing for me.”

Jamal said he’s been impressed with the increase he’s noticed in discipline, leadership, commitment and responsibility.

“To see that personal example of someone growing up has been just a great thing for me,” he said. “I feel that I actually benefit more from being in this program than they do. To have this new sense of fulfillment in my career, it’s a great thing.”

Cortez said students in the program benefit greatly from their relationship with their instructors.

“It’s a whole different type of learning curve,” he said. “We get disciplined. Coming here is real, real helpful to students that don’t really get this opportunity or experience at home.”

Cortez believes that the work he is putting in is worth it.

“It takes a lot of hard work, focusing, listening and discipline, and it pays off,” he said. “Saving somebody’s life, it pays off.”