Next August, Johnston County will welcome its first class of freshmen who will graduate from high school just one semester shy of being certified firefighters.
New programs at Clayton and Smithfield-Selma schools will allow high school seniors to graduate with almost all of the credits required for an associate’s degree in firefighting. The students would need just one semester at Johnston Community College to complete their degrees and earn their certification.
Students at all Johnston County high schools will be eligible to apply for the program, but students from outside of Clayton and SSS will have to provide their own transportation if accepted.
Tim Harrell, director of career and technical education for Johnston County Schools, said the college credits students earn while in high school will come at no cost to them. Only the one semester at JCC will come with a price tag, he said.
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“The goal is to help students become employable,” Harrell said of the new program. “And we’ll also get to meet a demand in our county for firefighters.”
In a survey of current eighth- and ninth-graders, more than half of the 4,900 respondents said they would be interested in the program, Harrell said. “We wanted to gauge interest, and we found it,” he said. “They all wanted the program. ... It became competitive.”
Harrell said he was not surprised by the survey response. Already, many young people in Johnston volunteer with fire departments, he said. Others have family members who serve.
“We know that we have young men and women in our buildings who have already served,” Harrell said. “And we know a lot of them have family who have served in departments across the county and the country.”
The program’s curriculum will come from the N.C. Office of the State Fire Marshal, Harrell said. “It’s the state curriculum,” he said. “We’re just the delivery system.”
And it’s a curriculum grounded in science, Harrell said. “It’s more than just putting the wet stuff on the hot stuff,” he said, laughing. “There’s a true science to it.”
SSS and Clayton will hire one teacher each, most likely a current or former firefighter, Harrell said. The schools could add more staff if the program grows, he said, adding that he expects 60 to 90 students total in the program’s first year.
Harrell noted that every fire department in Johnston County has endorsed the program. The departments “might also provide opportunities for worked-based learning experience, observation, part-time jobs or other training,” he said. “It’s a collaboration, and we’re so excited to be partnering with our local fire services.”
Clayton Fire Chief Lee Barbee is president of the Johnston County Fire and Emergency Chiefs Association. He welcomed a program that could provide Johnston fire departments with a steady stream of qualified applicants.
“It’s going to benefit everybody,” Barbee said. “Everyone’s going to prosper from it in the future for recruitment.”
When fire departments hire applicants with no training, it takes 18 months to bring them up to speed, Barbee said. The high school program means that won’t be necessary, he said. The Clayton chief also thinks students will appreciate being nearly job-ready when they graduate from high school.
“With the school program, it’s more advantageous for the students, because when they graduate at 19 years old, they’re already candidates for either full-time, part-time or volunteer jobs at the departments,” Barbee said. “This will really open the door to people and give a lot of students the opportunity to do it.”
Harrell said the Johnston County school system’s longstanding partnership with JCC is a boon to the county’s young people. “Ours is unique from what’s around us,” he said, explaining that while Wake, Harnett and Cumberland counties have similar programs, they don’t all offer an associate’s degree.
“We want our students to be well prepared for employment and to become successful, contributing citizens of our county,” Harrell said. “We want them to be successful, and if we can equip them for that and keep them in Johnston filling jobs that are so important, we want to do everything we can to make that happen.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett