Sun Prairie Fire Chief Chris Garrison remembers his “aha” moment, when he knew he was on the right track with a pilot program in which high school students at Prairie Phoenix Academy attend the Fire Academy program at Madison Area Technical College.

Garrison said one of the students, D.J. Presley, had put on the firefighter gear and when asked how it felt replied, “It just fits.”

That’s all Garrison needed to witness as he was spearheading the year-long academic program created by the Sun Prairie Fire Department, Prairie Phoenix Academy and Madison Area Technical College. MATC shuttles the 11 students from their school each morning to the Fire Academy, where they attend classes and training, and then returns them to Prairie Phoenix Academy to finish their school day.

The appreciation for the chance to get college credit through the program was palpable as Presley, a senior at Prairie Phoenix Academy, spoke about what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Usually people don’t do this,” said Presley, about the program which is being offered free to students. “It’s like being handed a couple thousand dollars.”

Garrison said the idea for the pilot program was prompted by the difficulties with recruiting and retaining full-time and volunteer firefighters and an interest in more diversity. He said other area fire departments have since shown interest in the program, which upon successful completion provides firefighter and EMT certification.

“This is about taking some of our most at-risk youth and helping them to do some of the most important work in Sun Prairie,” Garrison said. “We want our organization to be as diverse as our city and growing this program, from the inside out, gives us that opportunity.”

Prairie Phoenix Academy was a natural fit for the pilot program because of students’ flexible schedules and their interest in hands-on activities, he said.

“My job is to find ways to say ‘yes’ to get kids in places where they want to be,” Principal Lisa Bollinger said. “This is really an excellent gateway to what their next career might be.”

Nancy Everson, the school-to-career manager for Sun Prairie high school students, said this is a natural addition to other opportunities for students through the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship program. In the case of the firefighter partnership, Madison College is providing the instruction, transportation and college credit, she said. The school district provides the books and uniforms, and the Fire Department is providing mentorship and student support.

Bollinger said students are so proud of their uniforms, which consist of navy blue pants and a navy blue T shirt with “MATC Fire Academy” printed on the back, that they wear them even after they leave the Fire Academy.

Junior Caira Phipps said younger students on her bus are “more than impressed” when they see her in uniform, and she likes how others also now see her.

“Back in the day, I was a bad kid and people are like ‘You’ve changed so much,’” she said.

Phipps has taken on an organizational and leadership role at the Fire Academy and is known to call other students when they haven’t shown up for the bus to get there.

Junior Trentin Holsten said at first he wasn’t interested and never thought of firefighting as a career, but now he is considering it. One of his favorite parts of the program, he said, is putting on the gear, and sometimes he tries to be the first to put it on.

Ernie Martinez, one of the Fire Academy instructors in the pilot program, said he feels that part of his job is making connections with the students, who are younger than most he teaches.

“We have to find what works for them,” he said.

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