Scott Akana’s 7-year-old grandson, Reidan, is not afraid of the water. On weekends, the family heads to the beach, where the boy splashes around with such carefree joy, the adults have to coax him out of the ocean when it’s time to head home.
But despite that comfort in the water, Reidan hasn’t yet mastered how to swim.
But the tide is slowly changing this school year, as his second-grade class at Lanakila Elementary in Kalihi is receiving free swim instruction by a Hawaii nonprofit dedicated to teaching swim safety and proficiency among Hawaii’s youth.
“This is good for the kids, really good. It teaches them the basic skills they need, and when they go in that water, it can save their life,” said Akana, a parent chaperone for Reidan’s class.
The adult was spending a recent morning at the pool at Palama Settlement, where second graders practiced how to float on their backs, do basic swim strokes and submerge their heads underwater in small groups led by certified instructors at the Hawaii Aquatics Foundation.
It’s an eye-opening fact frequently cited by Hawaii swim advocates: despite living in a small island state, within close proximity to miles of coastline, an estimated half of Hawaii’s kids do not know how to swim.
In a recent “State of Play Hawaii” report, a snapshot of youth sports access in the Aloha State, commissioned by the Queen Lili’uokalani Trust, which works to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiian children, the inability to swim was cited as “a marker of poverty” among kids, since private swim lessons can often be financially out of reach, or a low priority given other needs, for many families.
This gap creates a basic public health concern: drowning was the third-highest cause of fatal injuries for kids, infants up to age 17, in Hawaii between 2014 and 2018, according to the state Department of Health. Among the 21 drowning-related fatalities that occurred in that time frame, more than half occurred in swimming pools and another five in the ocean.
When it came to non-fatal drowning-related injuries for children under 18 in those same four years, more than half of the 284 calls to emergency services on Oahu were ocean-based, according to DOH. These calls are far more prevalent on Oahu, home to three-quarters of the state’s residents, compared with the neighbor islands.
The number of drowning deaths per 100,000 residents in Hawaii in 2017 was higher than the national average and surpassed only by Alaska, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
“The assumption is that everyone in Hawaii is a great waterman,” said Duane DeSoto, a professional surfer who grew up in Makaha, and founder and CEO of Na Kama Kai, a nonprofit focused on ocean safety education and awareness.
“The romanticized version of Hawaii means we’re all in this incredible privilege and the luckiest people in the world and we’re so blessed,” DeSoto added. “I try to nicely inform (people who aren’t aware), there is a lot of disparity and inequity.”
A panel at the 2019 Schools of the Future conference in early October highlighted the need for ocean safety and awareness education.
Spearheaded by Jessamy Town Hornor, the founder of Ocean Safety Ohana, the discussion focused on state drowning statistics and the impact of community partnerships with Hawaii Department of Education and other schools to introduce swim programs.
Hornor, who grew up on Maui, lost her husband and young daughter to a tragic drowning accident on Oahu several years ago. The Ohana is founded in their memory. At the panel, she discussed the need to teach preventative education by growing a “community of ocean-minded keiki and residents.”
“We have one of the world’s greatest classrooms surrounding us,” said Hornor. “Beyond safety, it’s really about well-being for children.”
Some swim advocates believe the best place to start that education is within the DOE.
Hawaii’s public school system serves 179,000 students in 256 traditional DOE schools and another 37 charter schools, but it does not have a mandatory swim curriculum. That means there’s also no funding for this effort.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of traditional DOE schools.
Many decades ago, the DOE used the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium for a mandatory elementary school “Learn to Swim” program, according to the nonprofit “Friends of the Natatorium.” But the 100-by-40 meters saltwater swimming pool closed in 1979 due to disrepair and has remained shuttered since.
Hawaii is not alone in this respect: no other public school district offers a mandatory swim curriculum. The gap in swimming abilities among racial minorities in Hawaii is an issue in other parts of the U.S.
“We have one of the world’s greatest classrooms surrounding us. Beyond safety, it’s really about well-being for children.” — Jessamy Town Hornor, founder of Ocean Safety Ohana.
But what makes Hawaii stand apart is its proximity and strong cultural connection to the ocean. It also has one of the highest percentages of private student enrollment in the nation, and several of its most prominent private schools make swimming competency a graduation requirement.
This exacerbates the divide between kids who have access to a swimming curriculum and those who do not, diminishing opportunities for some students to participate in aquatics sports, compete for scholarships one day or just go to the beach without fear.
At Punahou, a K-12 private school, swimming is introduced into the PE curriculum in the third grade. At the high school level, all students are required to take a “Lifetime Fitness” course, which requires being able to tread water for 13 minutes, and also tests how many laps students can swim in a 12-minute period, according to Scott Osborn, the school’s communications officer.
“The school believes there is great value in our students learning how to swim,” he said via email.
It also doesn’t hurt that Punahou houses an Olympic-sized 50-meter, million-gallon pool (larger even than the University of Hawaii’s) at its Waterhouse Aquatics Complex. Iolani School and the Oahu campus of Kamehameha Schools also boast Olympic-sized pools, used for swim lessons and water-based athletics.
Access to facilities remains one of the biggest obstacles to reaching public school kids with subsidized swim lessons.
Many public high schools, and some primary schools, have a pool, including Kalani High and Kaimuki High. But some are in need of renovation or haven’t been in use for years, such as the Waianae High pool on Oahu’s Leeward coast, which has been closed since 2007.
This prevents many kids on that side of the island — which has a heavy concentration of Native Hawaiian students — from learning how to swim, even though the schools may want to partner with community nonprofits, according to Ann Mahi, the complex area superintendent for the Waianae-Nanakuli complex area.
“I think that’s the greater (barrier),” Mahi said. “We feel we don’t have access, so there’s no opportunity to build those swim programs in.”
On Oahu’s west side, the closest public pools are in Kapolei, at the Salvation Army Kroc Center or the Makakilo community pool, a good 30-minute drive’s away, without traffic.
State leaders are trying to introduce a mandatory water safety curriculum to stem youth drownings in the state. A Senate concurrent resolution introduced last session calls for the DOE to implement ocean safety and education for all fourth-grade public school students and to partner with Na Kama Kai, DeSoto’s foundation, which leads statewide ocean clinics for youth at Pokai Bay.
The measure stalled.
According to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani, elementary school principals 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 this year and last, 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.
DeSoto said it is incumbent not just on the DOE but state governance overall to foster an appreciation of ocean safety and dispel fears surrounding the water.
“It’s a liability for us not to ‘teach ocean,’” he said. “If we want to be responsible and socially responsible for each other, we need to take it upon ourselves to advocate for ourselves.”
Hawaii Aquatics Foundation, founded in March 2017, is one organization that is trying to close the swim proficiency gap.
It now reaches 17 public schools across the state on Oahu, Maui and Kauai and uses pools such as community pools or area high school pools. The Palama Settlement pool in Kalihi is one of them — a small community oasis that includes a gymnasium and is located within walking distance to three Title I elementary schools, including Lanakila Elementary, Kaulawela Elementary and Likelike Elementary.
Many students live in the nearby low-income housing complexes like Mayor Wright Homes and Kuhio Park Terrace. Many are also English language learners, with parents who are immigrants from places like China and Micronesia, including Chuuk and the Marshall Islands.
On a recent sunny Tuesday morning, a parade of eager second-graders from Lanakila Elementary filtered single file into the fenced-in 22-meter rectangular pool, whose depth ranges from 4 feet to 8 feet deep.
“The assumption is that everyone in Hawaii is a great waterman.” — Duane DeSoto, founder and CEO of Na Kama Kai.
They made the 15-minute walk over from the school, accompanied by their teacher, an education assistant and a couple of parent chaperones.
They were divided up into groups of four kids per one swim instructor for personalized attention. A lifeguard also walked up and down the length of the shallow end where the kids learned basic skills, a foam noodle flotation device the only prop incorporated into the lesson. Instructors, who are paid, gave encouraging remarks and deployed easy to understand analogies to teach the kids.
“We’re going to be pretty starfish!” said one instructor as she taught students to float on their back. “Pretend you’re scooping ice cream!” said another, to teach a forward swim stroke motion.
“I love it, I feel really lucky,” said Peyton Barthel, a swim instructor, as she stood in the pool. “A lot of the kids from the area have never been in a pool before. It’s awesome because at this point, you’re able to grab them younger. They’re not as scared of the water.”
It takes initiative by individual schools to partner with Hawaii Aquatics Foundation, which offers the 5 to 10-week curriculum — featuring two in-classroom sessions and eight in-pool sessions lasting 30 minutes — for free to area schools through its Hawaii Aquatics Academy.
These Hawaii public schools have partnered with Hawaii Aquatics Academy.
Oahu Schools (Pools used: Asia Pacific International, Kailua District Park, Kaimuki High School, Kanewai Community Pool, Palama Settlement)
Enchanted Lake Elementary School
Hauʻula Elementary School
Hokulani Elementary School
Kaʻaʻawa Elementary School
Kailua Elementary School
Kaʻōhao Charter School
Kauluwela Elementary School
Lanakila Elementary School
Likelike Elementary School
Prince Jonah Kuhio Elementary School
Voyager Public Charter School
Kauai Schools (Pools used: Kapaa Community Pool, Kauai High School, Waimea Community Pool)
ʻEleʻele Elementary School
Kapaʻa Elementary School
Wilcox Elementary School
Maui Schools (Pools used: Kihei Community Center, Pukalani Upcountry Pool)
Kihei Elementary School
Pukalani Elementary School
Many of the kids they work with, particularly in economically challenged areas like Kalihi, do not own a swimming suit, so the foundation will provide those at no cost and let the kids keep them once the course is over.
“In this particular area, over half of these kids haven’t set foot in a pool,” said Dean Schmaltz, president and chairman of the foundation.
Only about half of all second-graders in Hawaii are able to swim 10 meters or more, and only a quarter of the kids they’ve met can float for 30 seconds or more, he said of the foundation’s findings.
While the swim course is not mandatory to kids at participating schools, more than 90% of the kids opt in, he said. The ones who sit out are often held back because their parents are fearful, not knowing how to swim themselves.
By the end of the course, students are expected to know basic aquatic skills like breathing effectively, floating or treading water for a sustained period, traveling through the water in a controlled way and safely entering and exiting the water.
In the 2017-18 school year, the foundation worked with 500 students on Oahu, Maui and Kauai. By 2018-19, that number increased to 1,000 students. The foundation’s goal this year is to reach 2,000 students and then eventually, get 100% elementary school participation.
The cost is free to these schools. The foundation raises money through private donations and grants and its estimated cost of instruction is $100 per student for a 5-hour program. The estimated statewide cost per grade, is $1.5 million.
There’s an added incentive to offering the swim lessons at the DOE schools: improved confidence and focus, say teachers.
“Swimming allows a lot of other students who may not be as high in academics to be proficient at something else,” Jay Dumlao, a second-grade teacher at Lanakila Elementary, said, standing by the side of the Palama Settlement pool. “It kind of evens out the playing field where everyone has some sort of talent or skill — like, ‘I can do things if I put my mind to it.’”
It has also helped some of his more withdrawn kids open up. “They’re all faced with a similar project they’re going to engage in,” he said. “It kinds of opens up everything, their interests, or their differences. It’s something they can talk about.”
There’s another added benefit: improved attendance.
Ned Uemae, principal at Kaulawela Elementary in Kalihi, said on the days the 80 to 90 second graders have swim class with the Hawaii Aquatics Foundation, more kids show up to school.
“That’s one of the challenges we have – making sure kids come to school every day,” he said.
More than three-quarters of the student body is eligible for free lunch. Close to half of the school’s 450 kids are English language learners, with one-third Chuukese and another third, Chinese. Many kids are in the school office until 4 p.m., when the office closes, because their parents are working multiple jobs.
Staff often have to walk the kids back home. The school tries to provide as much free after-school programming as it can, partnering with places like Diamond Head Theater and Harris United Methodist Church, according to Uemae.
This is the school’s first year participating in the swim program.
“When they come back (from the pool) and I see them, they’re so happy,” said Uemae.
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