Rockett Academy: Pairing At-Risk Youth with Fire Fighters For Change • Long Beach Post

Darren Rockett fought hard for kids. As a member of Los Angeles District Attorney and Los Angeles County Fire’s Rescue Program, he placed at-risk youth into mentorship situations for over a decade.

But in 2011, the program was canceled due to budget cuts. And during its hiatus, Rockett passed away.

This year, the Rockett Academy was formed in his name as a collaboration between the Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD), the Long Beach City Prosecutor’s Office and the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD). This program is separate and independent from the Rescue Program that Rockett was involved in early on. The 2015 Rockett Academy inaugural class was based solely in Long Beach. 

“Darren believed in the proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” said LBFD Firefighter Phil Gonsal. He met Rockett in 2000 when they participated in the Los Angeles County Rescue Program together.  “He also believed we should take care of each child in the community. They’re a reflection of us.”

Dedicated to the memory of Rockett and his passion for helping families in Long Beach, the academy consists of seventh and eighth graders who have been identified as “at risk” visiting various fire stations a few times a month for mentorship and guidance from firefighters.

Twelve students were identified for the program, based off of academic and attendance records, according to a release issued by the District Attorney’s office. The only firm rules were they were to not have a criminal record and must maintain at least a “C” average, in addition to attending the mentorship meetings.

“They’re not going into different buildings on fire,” said Gonsal of the mentorship program, which he said was not really about learning the ropes of fire fighting at all. “We take them on our rides, they see the good and bad sides of life—homelessness, shootings…it’s definitely eye-opening for many of them.”

On Sunday, many of the once-shy Rockett Academy students in its inaugural class graduated, to resounding applause. Simon said every student either maintained the required GPA or improved upon it. A total of one discipline infraction occurred throughout the school year as well, according to Simon, down from 14 total infractions made the previous year by the group of students.

“It was evident how much students have [been impacted] at their graduation this past Sunday,” LBUSD Director of Support Services Dr. Erin Simon said. “The effect of it was very palpable. That was amazing for me.”

“Their motivation and self-esteem increased,” said Gonsal. “They had a desire to want to do better and take control of their future. They went from being shy and withdrawn to being outspoken, driven.”

Spearheaded by Long Beach City Prosecutor Office’s Tracy McGee, Simon and Gonsal worked with her on the passion project, with the help of donations from Rockett’s surviving wife for program T-shirts. 

This year’s group of 12 is expected to just about double next year, to 23 students, with some rollover. Gonsal said the plan is to take more children outside of the city on trips to Clippers and Dodgers games, as well as Catalina—excursions all donated by the host organizations.

This year, firefighters took children to the beach and places within Long Beach, something “a lot of kids don’t get to see,” said Gonsal. A trip to the airport proved quite popular, he said.

“The plan is to get them involved in programs that feed the homeless, as well as a graffiti program” next year, said Gonsal.

“I see kids excelling and doing great things for the program,” said Simon.

This article was updated on 06/10/15 at 9:50AM, clarifying the nature of the original LA County Rescue Program and the new, independent, Long Beach-based Rockett Academy. The name of Tracy McGee was also corrected. 

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