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Water All Around, but Some Children Can’t Swim

Pool Sessions Teach Survival Skills to Fifth-Graders

With his lifejacket snug and dripping wet, Challenger Elementary School fifth-grader Jaden Brown pulled himself up an East Kentwood High School Aquatics Center pool ladder. He had just practiced swimming in deep water with his classmates.

During three sessions at the pool, offered to all fifth-graders from the district’s 10 elementary schools, Jaden has learned the basics of water safety and he’s feeling more confident in the pool. “It taught me how to swim a little,” he said. “I didn’t know how to swim before.”

The Aquatic Center, which features two swimming pools and 1-meter and 3-meter diving boards, provides the perfect opportunity to teach swimming as a life skill to many students in the district who don’t know how to swim, said Aquatics Director Joey Sutherlin. He leads the session with Jock Ambrose, high school boys’ swim coach.

Yet, like skills taught in health and physical education, water safety is something all students need to know, Sutherlin said. The district is one of the most diverse in the state, with students from more than 60 countries represented and a large population of English-language learners.

Leena Karaein, left, and Kelly Le, Challenger Elementary School fifth-graders, get ready to swim

In the U.S., about 4,000 people drown each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including data from 1999–2010. Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury death among children ages 1 to 4, and one of the top three causes among persons age 29 or younger.

There is disparity in rates of drowning among some ethnic groups, including African-Americans, with blacks also reporting less opportunities to swim. Swimming pool drowning rates among blacks, ages 5–19, were 5.5 times higher than those among white youth. This disparity was greatest at ages 11 and 12 years; at these ages, blacks drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of whites.

Skills for Life

“It’s lifelong learning. We live in Michigan. We are 10 minutes from natural water in any direction,” Sutherlin said, adding that the district has continued to invest in the pool, while some districts have ended their programs. Grand Rapids Public Schools, for instance, once offered water safety but it fell victim to budget cuts.

If the program saves even just one life it is worth it, he said. “We have to make sure we are not just educating our kids in math, science, English, but that we are teaching them survival skills as well.”

Coach Jock Ambrose talks about water safety to Challenger Elementary School fifth-graders

While the fifth-grade three-session course is a way to build the district’s competitive swim program by introducing swimming, water polo and diving to elementary school students, a key component is teaching safety topics. Those include floating, reaching out with an oar or branch to help someone struggling in the water, and throwing them a ring buoy or other floatation device. Students learn to enter shallow water feet first and have the chance to try swimming in deep water.

“We believe there is nothing more important than teaching all kids from a young age all the way through high school, the importance of water safety,” Sutherlin said. “We want to make sure they will be safe when they leave here.”

Challenger teacher Jennifer Ray said she’s seen her students become more interested and comfortable in the water, and even start coming to open swim sessions with their families. “There are definitely some of them who, over the three classes, their confidence in the water has grown.”

East Kentwood also offers high school electives including lifeguarding, and beginning, intermediate and advanced swimming.

Once students get really confident in the water, Aquatics Center staff encourages them try the diving board. Fifth-grader Leilani Moore took the plunge off the 3-meter board.

“It was amazing. I felt like I was flying!” she exclaimed.


Swimming a ‘Luxury’ to Many Minorities, Immigrants

In Pools, Young Blacks Drown at Far Higher Rates

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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