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The Young Blue Line

Meet the Fairfield students who could one day be your neighborly law enforcement agents.

 

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The fifth-grade girl seems unsure of herself at first, but when her teacher prompts her, it all comes back. “I strive to achieve academic excellence,” the girl recites. “I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future. I know that my success in school and life is dependent on my own efforts.”

She and all 700-plus of her classmates at Fairfield’s Public Safety Academy assemble, in uniform, at 7:45 each morning to say that school creed and the Pledge of Allegiance. The students, who span the 5th through the 10th grades (a junior and a senior class will be added when the present sophomores age into them), wear crisp uniforms, some with insignias marking them as captains, commanders, or lieutenants. They attended a two- to three-day boot camp before enrolling, are referred to as cadets, address all adults as sir or ma’am, and even have a school rifle team.

But this is not a private military academy. PSA is a public school in the Fairfield-Suisun school district. Staff members can muster up a good drill sergeant impersonation—today, when a morning uniform inspection finds too many freshmen improperly attired (missing belts, unshined shoes, and nail polish violations), the training officer promises, “We’ll have some words. I’m going to break these kids down a little—but then I’m going to build them back up.” Even at its sternest, this doesn’t feel like the marines.

More important, PSA isn’t looking to turn anyone into a soldier, or even to send anyone to ROTC. Many of these kids are studying to be cops or firefighters, paramedics or search-and-rescue workers. Dubbed the School of Choice, the academy is a public education experiment: The cadets are here because they went out of their way to enroll. In exchange for submitting to some extra discipline, they get an education tailored to a particular vocation on top of the state-mandated curriculum they’d receive anywhere else. Not every PSA kid will go on to become a cop or a firefighter, but those who want to try will be ready.

 

The academy is in part the brainchild of Walt Tibbet, Fairfield’s former chief of police. In 2010, Tibbet had a problem: He didn’t have enough cops because there weren’t enough qualified applicants. The problem was not unique to Fairfield: In an article for Police Chief Magazine nine years ago, then–Golden Gate University professor William J. Woska highlighted factors that drain young talent from American law enforcement rolls: opportunities in tech and finance, two foreign wars that siphoned high school grads to the military, and the increasing furor over police violence and institutional racism. (His crystal ball must have been tuned to 2015.)

Speaking today, Woska notes that while the number of applicants nationwide has risen a trifle, only 5 to 8 percent of those applicants make the cut (Fairfield manages about 8 to 10 percent). Some are turned away for lack of education and basic skills, some because they can’t pass the physical or psychological tests, but most because the background check reveals some minor but damning criminal infraction in their youth. Certain departments have started relaxing their recreational drug use policies (“These days they don’t even bother to ask ‘Have you ever?’ but just ‘When was the last time?’” says one retired Fairfield cop). Even so, most chiefs have trouble filling their ranks.

As he explored possible solutions, Tibbet says, “I heard about a charter school in San Bernardino that was having great success identifying young people with an interest in law enforcement and giving them the tools they needed. I talked with the city manager and superintendent, and we became convinced that there was a way to do this in a public school and change the mainstream education model.” Two years later, PSA enrolled its first students.

 

Much of what goes on at PSA would benefit kids at any school. The fifth-grade science class is dissecting a sheep heart; the eighth-grade physics class is designing Rube Goldberg machines. Later in the year, the sophomores will hold a mock college and career fair, each team researching a school or job. Most of the teachers here are just that: teachers, not cops. Jean Hull, an elementary school teacher for 29 years, was drawn to PSA by her desire to teach hands-on science, which had been neglected by her former schools in favor of teaching to the test. “I felt like a criminal for teaching science before,” she says. “I taught the kids to hide their projects whenever someone came in.”

PSA also offers specialized courses: A CSI class that teaches skills like fingerprinting brings in firefighters to demonstrate equipment and cops to show their K9 units. When the science class studies meteorology, Travis Air Force Base sends an officer to demonstrate weather gear used in Afghanistan. The math class measures the angles of skid marks left by speeding vehicles. Later this year, the kids will follow a single investigation from start to finish, beginning at a simulated crime scene and continuing to a police station where they’ll help file a report. After that, they’ll meet the district attorney and a public defender to learn what happens to the accused. And, finally, they’ll head to the court house for a mock arraignment (or, if the timing is right, a real one).

 

Most of the students aren’t planning to go into public service. Isabella, an 8th-grader who aims to be an actor, chose PSA’s rigorous academics because “I always want to be the top of the class.” Aaron, the student council president, plans to be a school principal someday. He’d previously bounced around the district—attending one school for only two days before being transferred again—and thought that PSA would offer stability. John, a 10th-grader, just wanted a school with no fighting. The kids throw out a lot of career dreams: doctor, lawyer, engineer. “One girl wants to be Oprah,” says a fifth-grade teacher.

Because no one has graduated yet, it’s too soon to judge the school’s success, but its test scores are excellent. And most staffers will tell you that the school’s discipline and lessons in integrity are more important than the cop training. A code of honor admonishes cadets not to “lie, cheat, or steal.” The curriculum emphasizes “pillars of character” like trustworthiness and good citizenship. PSA is not a fix-it school—its motivated students are probably among the least likely anywhere to get into trouble. Still, the school does impress on them that even small mistakes can have big consequences. “The days when a GED and some street smarts were good enough are over,” says Larry Banks, a retired cop and the school’s cadet training officer. “We’ve got to get these kids on the right track when they’re little. Fifth grade, that’s the time, before they have a chance to get lost to the streets.”

Banks’s job is to bring police, firefighters, and other public servants into the school. He also assigns kids to the rotating officer positions, which mostly involve being a good role model and ensuring that classmates get to and from formation on time. Banks is a big, broad-shouldered guy—a soft-spoken grandfather with a prominent facial scar who rides a Harley and wears leathers in his off-hours. Rather than fully retire after 29 years as a cop, he took this job because he wanted to teach kids rather than monitor them. When he talks about his students, he smiles constantly. “This isn’t a school for everyone,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been the school for me. These kids are smarter than I was at that age—they’re smarter than I am now.”

Banks, who is black, is also mindful of the elephant in the room. “The truth is, our police department does not reflect the community, and the chief knows it. When this school started, people thought it was going to be a blue-eyed Aryan Hitler Youth program, but look at the diversity out there.” This year’s student body is 40 percent Latino, nearly 13 percent African-American, and more than 17 percent Asian, including Filipino: exactly the kinds of numbers that law enforcement needs to bring into the fold if it wants to reflect 21st-century communities.

The school district is kicking around a half dozen ideas for other academies—culinary, engineering, perform- ing arts—built on the choice model. What’s critical, Banks and other educators say, is reaching the kids who are not being served by the present system. “We lose them when they think there’s nothing out there for them,” Banks says. “It’s time for something new.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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