Over the past seven years, thousands of second-graders have learned water safety skills through SwimRVA's program.
As we come to the end of National Water Safety Month, the statistics are sobering:
* 70% of Black children and 66% of Black adults do not know how to swim
* 79% of children from low-income families do not know how to swim
* Drowning is the No. 2 cause of accidental death for those under the age of 14, and No. 1 for those under the age of 4 and for children with autism
Rather than merely lament the situation, though, SwimRVA is doing something about it. Through its Learn to Swim program, the local nonprofit has provided free swim lessons to thousands of children from underserved communities in Chesterfield and across the region over the past seven years – and demand from schools hoping to participate in the program increases annually.
“It’s about access and opportunity,” said Scott Bennett, director of communications for SwimRVA, an entity formed in 2012 to operate a newly constructed, 54,000-square-foot aquatic center in North Chesterfield and serve as a community hub for aquatics in the Richmond metropolitan area.
“These disparities started back when segregation was in place and different communities never had access to public pools,” he added. “Now it has just happened generationally over the years – people aren’t comfortable around water so their children never learn how to swim. We’re trying to break that cycle.”
Sixteen Chesterfield elementary schools currently participate in Learn to Swim, a foundational element of Swim RVA’s Drownproof Richmond initiative. Most of them serve large populations of students of color and students whose families qualify financially for free or reduced-price school meals; both groups typically have less access to pools than their peers who live in newer, more affluent neighborhoods.
In collaboration with the YMCA of Greater Richmond, SwimRVA’s goal is to give every second-grader in the region a chance to learn how to swim through a unique, station-based program designed by U.S. Olympic Swim Team coaches.
“We’ve found if a child doesn’t learn to swim by third grade, they’re probably not going to. But SOL testing starts in third grade and we’ll never get a principal to agree [to take time out of the school day for swim lessons] for third-graders,” said Debbie Kelo, director of programs for SwimRVA.
A student rings the bell at SwimRVA's North Chesterfield aquatic center after completing a station.
Learn to Swim provides all second-grade students from participating schools with a 45-minute lesson once a week for seven weeks.
It’s a 7-station curriculum. On Day 1, when the children arrive, instructors go over safety rules and things they need to be aware of when they’re close to the pool. Then they get in the water and every student is tested to determine which station is appropriate for their skill level.
The first two stations incorporate basic water safety skills, such as learning to breathe properly and open your eyes underwater, float and roll over onto your back to propel yourself forward.
In Station 3, students learn how to kick properly underwater. Then they are taught how to use their arms and legs together in Station 4.
“Every child can learn at their own pace,” Kelo said. “When they complete the skills to pass a station, they get to ring a bell and we announce, ‘Attention Ladies and Gentleman, so-and-so has passed Station 1.’ They go put a sticker on their certificate on the wall, then it’s back in the water to work on the next station.”
If they progress through the initial stations quickly enough, participants can receive more detailed instruction about the four strokes used in competitive swimming: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly.
SwimRVA also offers discounts for students who want to continue working on their strokes once they’ve completed the program, creating a more affordable pathway for children from low-income families to advance in swimming and eventually join a summer league, high school or even year-round team – or even become certified as a lifeguard.
According to Bennett, teachers and school administrators regularly report that their students see benefits from Learn to Swim that extend well beyond the pool walls.
“They come here and build positive success habits, reach a goal, get positive reinforcement by ringing the bell, then they take that back to the classroom and are able to use it,” he said. “Their self-esteem increases as they realize they can accomplish things. Attendance goes up and they pay attention better.”
While teaching children skills they can use for a lifetime, SwimRVA is also gradually improving the Richmond region’s relationship with water.
The Learn to Swim program is “a significant game-changer,” said Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland, whose district includes the SwimRVA aquatic center. “It eliminates fear of water that is prevalent because many people of color haven’t had access to pools. It also creates confidence and encourages a ‘can-do’ attitude, both in the pool and in the classroom. What a generational gift this is for our community.”
Students learn basic water safety, such as how to breathe and open their eyes under water, in Station 1