Logan Elementary Celebration at Memorial Pool with PDFSD and City of San Diego Pool. Photo by S. Bruce.

By Jennifer McEntee

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you. That was the case for Antonio Villar, principal at Logan K-8 School in Logan Heights. He wanted to expand the school’s physical education offerings. The solution was right next door: the city’s Memorial Pool, a 10-lane community pool with an inviting and colorful “spray ground.”

“The kids are excited to do P.E.,” Villar said. “Instead of doing regular P.E. activities, the students are able to focus on swimming and be really active.”

For a month each school year, about 300 students in grades 3 through 8 walk to Memorial Pool to take lessons that teach both water safety and basic swim skills. Logan has offered a swim program for about seven years, Villar said, but recently began receiving support from the nonprofit Prevent Drowning Foundation of San Diego through its “Learn to Swim 4 Free” initiative.

The Prevent Drowning Foundation of San Diego – formerly known as The San Diego Junior Lifeguard Foundation, a name that reflected one of its flagship educational programs – has offered aquatic safety programs since 2009, with the goal of teaching every child in San Diego how to swim.  The foundation has led the charge in local swim safety education, and is working to expand its reach even further. It focuses much of its outreach on underserved communities.

The Logan swim program has evolved as instructors learn more about the skills and needs of the students. Some school years, many of the students are proficient swimmers from the first day; other years, it’s clear that as many as half haven’t had much exposure to the water, according to Villar. The school has also fundraised to have a cache of extra goggles, swimwear, and towels for any students who might need them.

“It really makes me feel like we’re making a difference,” Villar said. “We want them to learn how to not drown, but also to enjoy San Diego and all it has to offer.”

Logan Elementary Celebration at Memorial Pool with PDFSD and City of San Diego Pool. Photo by S. Bruce.

The Prevent Drowning Foundation would like to see swim programs like that at Logan replicated at schools throughout San Diego. By identifying schools within a mile of publicly accessible pools — like those operated by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and YMCA of San Diego County — the foundation hopes to eliminate school officials’ concerns about pricey bus transportation.

To make their case, the foundation has enlisted the help of high school students savvy with ArcGIS mapping and analytics software. Corri-Anne Burgess, who teaches computer science and geographic information systems at Kearny High’s School of Science, Connections & Technology, instructed her students on how to use multiple data points to build a “schools to pools” online map to visually demonstrate which area schools are within a mile of a public pool.

The research collaboration lets Burgess’ students see how technology can help their community. “This is real-world experience. They’re not just accountable to themselves. I teach them that data drives change,” she said.

Based on mapping data compiled by Kearny student Candan Xiao, there are 36 public elementary schools, nine middle schools, and eight high schools within easy walking distance of a publicly accessible San Diego swimming public.

Prevent Drowning Foundation president Greg “Buc” Buchanan said incorporating swim lessons into school curriculum is about more than a fun day at the pool. “Our ability to partner with local schools and teaching kids to swim in local pools equals saved lives,” he said.

Logan Elementary Celebration at Memorial Pool with PDFSD and City of San Diego Pool. Photo by S. Bruce.

Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 14 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than half of those children treated for drowning in an emergency department require hospitalization or further care. A child who survives drowning may suffer lasting consequences including brain damage, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, research suggests that formal swim lessons reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to the USA Swimming Foundation.

Buchanan said that while educators are starting to see the value of swim programs like those offered through the Prevent Drowning Foundation, more widespread implementation is key.

Hage Elementary School in Mira Mesa has offered its 3rd- through 5th-grade students swim lessons for about 16 years. The students walk a little more than a mile to Ned Baumer Aquatic Center for a half-hour class three days a week over a period of five weeks.

“We wanted to see how many lives we could save by offering this opportunity to become proficient swimmers,” said Hage P.E. teacher Keith Kaneko, who developed the school’s swim program with P.E. resource teacher Lynn Barnes-Wallace. “We wanted to see the doors it could open for them to learn these basic skills.”

Many Hage students can’t swim when they begin the program, and most aren’t adept at swim strokes or back floats. “If we threw them in a 13-foot pool, it wouldn’t be a safe situation,” said Kaneko, explaining that the swim program offers these students both practical techniques and new confidence. “The self-esteem piece is huge. They go from putting their toes in the water and being kind of nervous, to jumping in on the deep end.”

Hage fifth graders who complete the swim lessons can participate in the Prevent Drowning Foundation’s Bridge to Beach field trip to a local beach. Lifeguards give the students beach and ocean safety instruction, like how to recognize rip currents.

Kaneko said the swim lessons afford his students lifelong skills while making them more mentally focused for their schoolwork. “I couldn’t ask for them to be more prepared to go back to the classroom after a swim lesson,” said Kaneko. “We know the brain and body work together. A healthy life is a happy life and a long life.”

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Interested in having Prevent Drowning Foundation fund swim lessons at your school or community? Please have your school principal or administration email us at info@preventdrowningfoundation.org.


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