Elementary school students from Aiton Elementary School receive swimming instructions from Cosme Lantigua. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Elementary school students from Aiton Elementary School receive swimming instructions from Cosme Lantigua. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Earlier this year, D.C. Public Schools expanded elementary-level swimming classes to Wards 7 and 8. Groups of third graders from those communities have since traveled to Ballou Senior High School and H.D. Woodson STEM High School for lessons designed to help them safely navigate the waters.

For the more than a dozen young people in one cohort. the weekly trek from nearby Aiton Elementary School to H.D. Woodson has proven fruitful. During one recent lesson in particular, students practiced breathing and balancing techniques while their instructors emphasized the importance of remaining calm in the water.

Minutes after leaving the pool, some students such as De’kota French said they want to continue adding to their skill set.

“If you don’t know how to swim, you might drown when you get in the pool,” said De’kota as she looked back on the hourlong class. “[In this class], I learned how to bob [breathe underwater while swimming]. This could help me save a life. I could also help out my siblings.”

On Friday, students sat along the edge of the pool with their goggles on top of their head and feet in the water as instructors Cosme Lantigua and Kendra Richards prepared them for a lesson that would require them to stretch their body in the water, kick their legs and breathe. Initially, they would carry out each step separately and later combine them during practice laps.

Niamarah McKinnon, De’kota’s classmate who recounted learning how to swim from a family member, said the class has revealed new possibilities.

“I don’t go swimming that often. I think I will go swimming in the summer now and tell my cousin about the class at H.D. Woodson and how I learned to swim in the third grade,” Niamarah told The Informer.

Swimming has been found to build a child’s strength, muscle tone, balance and coordination while improving language and speech development via breath control. However, some youth haven’t been fortunate to learn how to swim.

Data collected from YMCA branches nationwide suggests that two out of three African-American children in the United States cannot swim. In turn, Black youth die in water-related incidents at a rate three times that of their white peers. Nearly 90 percent of those who say they can’t swim plan to go to the beach or pool this summer.

Proponents of swimming often point to the generational fear and stereotypes of Black inability as the main precipitators of these disparities. In the District, a history of racial tension, specifically a riot at a desegregated swimming pool in Anacostia in 1949, has also played a role. Though the pool would remain integrated with increased police presence, attendance significantly decreased. at that location.

Today, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation maintains nearly a dozen indoor pools across the District, each of which offers aquatic lessons for the entire family.

At its 2017 inception, third graders from 10 schools participated in DCPS’ elementary swimming program on the grounds of Marie Reed Elementary School in Northwest. By the end of this academic year, 1,400 third graders representing 27 public schools, more than half of which are based east of the Anacostia River, would’ve learned water and personal safety and foundational swimming skills.

Lantigua said such an experience can expose students and their families to an entirely different world.

“Students can be future professionals and get the skills in their bag for scholarships and access to swimming programs in the city regardless of race or neighborhood,” said the DCPS swimming instructor and lifelong swimmer. “We want them to see [the swimming pool] as a safe space where they can deviate from emotional stress and social tension. This would be projected on their families and communities, and these young people could become leaders that fight against the segregation that has surrounded swimming.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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