In a state surrounded by an ever-rising ocean, it’s unacceptable that many kids don’t know how to swim because their parents can’t afford private lessons and the schools don’t require public ones.

As Civil Beat reported recently, Hawaii is part of an all-too-common gap between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S. when it comes to teaching children how to survive and thrive in the water.

The inability to swim was cited as “a marker of poverty” among kids in a recent report commissioned by the Queen Lili’uokalani Trust, which works to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiian children.

And we’re not talking about a small number of underprivileged kids. It’s estimated that half of the children in Hawaii don’t know how to swim.

Some impressive efforts are being made to address the problem, and they often involve private organizations partnering with pubic schools. For instance, the Hawaii Aquatics Foundation currently works with 17 public schools on Oahu, Maui and Kauai to offer swimming instruction to grade-schoolers at community or high school pools.

This is a life-or-death issue in a state that has the nation’s second-highest drowning rate. Public schools that aren’t already providing swimming instruction must find a way, regardless of whether a private sector partner is available to help.

No state currently requires that all its public schools have mandatory swimming curriculums. Then again, the Aloha State is the only one that contains a single public school district, so this seems like a good place to start.

Hawaii has adopted other first-in-the-nation reforms, such as the commitment to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2045. It shouldn’t shrink from this opportunity to end a socio-economic injustice that threatens the lives of its young people.

It won’t be easy.

A proposed state Senate resolution last session called for “encouraging” the Department of Education to implement water safety education for all fourth-grade public school students and to partner with Na Kama Kai, a nonprofit foundation that leads statewide ocean clinics for youth at Pokai Bay.

The measure passed the Senate and had DOE support, but still stalled in the House of Representatives.

That’s business as usual in a Legislature where good ideas often take years to be adopted when the proper spirit finally moves committee chairs after the requisite political horse-trading is achieved.

In this case, however, kids’ lives are at stake. If that fact doesn’t cut through the usual politics at the Capitol, it’s hard to imagine what would.

It’s also unclear where the DOE would stand on a legislative edict requiring a water safety curriculum. Superintendent Christina Kishimoto wrote a letter stating her department “supports the intent” of the resolution that would have merely encouraged the action.

Of course state Board of Education members could issue their own edict, but obviously legislators control the state budget and their buy-in would be essential.

How committed is the DOE to water safety for all its students? Spokeswoman Nanea Kalani told Civil Beat that elementary school principals already are encouraged to remind students and families about the importance of ocean safety and stewardship.

The DOE also recommends all fourth-graders view a safety video and complete an activity workbook developed by Na Kama Kai. Those recommendations were outlined in memos sent to complex area superintendents and the principals, Kalani said.

“Schools may include water safety as part of a well-rounded education for students based on their community needs and availability of resources,” she said.

In this case, the “community needs” are urgent and obvious, but the “availability of resources” will be the sticking point.

We can’t protect our children from every risk, but in an American archipelago, there’s no excuse for not protecting them from the water.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author