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Texas Drownings Highlight Calls for Swim Instruction

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A spike in the number of children who have died from drowning this summer in Dallas County, Texas, lends some urgency to campaigns in that area and elsewhere for bolstering school-based swim education programs—especially for urban students.

The eight child drownings in that county, which encompasses the city of Dallas, is more than its 2013 and 2014 annual totals combined. Of the deaths this year, which occurred in private pools, a creek, a storm drain, and bath tubs, three were siblings who recently attended the Irving independent school district, located in the county’s western end.

Officials in that district—which serves nearly 35,000 students, the majority of whom are nonwhite and economically disadvantaged—are already well aware of how important swimming education is for their students. An informal poll of those students taken during the 2011-12 school year found less than 25 percent had taken swimming lessons or were comfortable in deep water, according to Sandi Cravens, the district’s physical education and health coordinator.

Such figures helped bolster, Ms. Cravens said, the district’s move since 2010 to add aquatics lessons into school curricula, including a high school-level swimming class for physical education credit, an after-school swim program instituted at two middle schools, and Swim Safe programs taught in five elementary schools. The three siblings who drowned in June did not participate in school-sponsored swimming programs, according to district officials.

Irving is just one in what seems to be a growing number of school districts showing interest in water safety education, according to Connie Harvey, the director of the American Red Cross’s Centennial Initiative, a campaign designed to lower drowning-death rates by 50 percent in 50 U.S. cities, including Dallas.

Though the Red Cross doesn’t have a full list of the school districts using its free educational materials, “we’re hearing, when we go out into the field, that more and more schools are reaching out, especially in coastal and Sunbelt areas,” such as Tucson, Ariz., and Miami, Ms. Harvey said.

Impact is Disparate

The problem is especially urgent in areas that are urban or have large African-American populations. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African-American children ages 5 to 14 drown at nearly three times the rate of their white peers.

In Miami-Dade, elementary school students at all grades are required to learn water safety each year via the Red Cross’s whale—Water Habits Are Learned Early—Tales children’s videos.

Miami-Dade also offers a learn-to-swim program that, at principals’ request, brings portable pools and county-employed water sports instructors to its schools. Including whale Tales lessons, the swim efforts—which the county’s budget funds completely—reach more than 110,000 students each year.

“A lot of parents can’t afford to pay for the swimming lessons anymore, so by us providing them free during the school day … they love it,” said Jayne Greenberg, the district director for physical education and health literacy for Miami-Dade county schools.

“Every year, I speak with the medical examiner’s office and they give me the ZIP codes of the 5- to 18-year-olds that drown in Miami, and that’s usually where I target placing the pools for the program,” said Ms. Greenberg.

“It’s a sad way to do business and get data, but it’s the most accurate to where the kids are not getting regular swimming lessons,” she added.

Miami-Dade schools have a student population of nearly 356,000, of which 90 percent is nonwhite and 22 percent is black. In other school districts with similar demographics to Miami-Dade, however, swimming is less of a focus.

Dallas Independent School District’s student population, for example, is about 25 percent black, and less than 5 percent white. Nearly 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, yet district officials have been hesitant to financially support swimming education, according to swim education advocates.

Though the district has partnered with YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas to put students through the Urban Swim Academy, a program aimed at teaching water safety to minority children, the schools “weren’t willing to fund it in any way, including transportation,” said Jennifer Pewitt, the associate vice president for aquatics at the Dallas YMCA.

Moreover, many of the indoor swimming pools in the district’s schools aren’t open to the community or don’t provide outreach water-safety programs because of funding constraints, according to Ms. Pewitt.

“I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to [fund swimming education],” Ms. Pewitt said. “It’s just because there’s this whole school funding issue.”

André Riley, a spokesman for the district, did not dispute those assertions, but he noted that the school system does teach water safety rules to physical education classes in grades K-2 under the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills education legislation.

More Than Funding

For many advocates of in-school water-safety lessons, funding issues are just one barrier. In urban environments especially, curriculum changes often hinge on available space.

“Even though we have two swimming pools, still there are too many students,” said Srecko Mavrek, a physical education teacher at the Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy, or KAPPA, International High School in the Bronx borough of New York and a winner of the Society of Health and Physical Educators 2015 District Teachers of the Year award.

Scheduling conflicts and a high student-to-facilities ratio, according to Mr. Mavrek, have prevented learning to swim from becoming mandatory in the majority-minority school.

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In fact, districts that have swimming instruction largely make it optional, dependent on parent and student interest. Miami-Dade public schools, for instance, require students to learn water safety education in the county’s elementary physical education classes, but do not require in-water exposure.

The reason for such a dichotomy is that “implementing the safety education curriculum is easy,” since it falls within the mandatory safety component that teachers must cover, but when it comes to physical swimming lessons “it’s a matter of local decisions,” said Ms. Greenberg.

In an effort to make school swimming education more uniform, at least one state is considering a shift from local control to state governance on the issue. A new education bill passed in June in Minnesota is laying the groundwork to make it the first state requiring public schools to teach swimming education.

The bill requires a working group to evaluate Minnesota’s swimming resources and what trajectories could be taken to introduce swimming to children statewide. Currently, the state is looking at how to put the working group together, with officials expecting the group to present its findings to the Minnesota legislature next year.

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