In Wake of Drownings, Officials Want to Boost Free Swimming Lessons

By Jillian Scharr
|  Tuesday, Jul 20, 2010  |  Updated 5:46 PM EDT
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As the number of child drowning deaths creeps close to double digits this summer, some are taking a closer look at the city's free swimming lessons programs.

Deputy Commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department Kevin Jeffrey appeared on Fox's Good Day New York after the deaths of two teenagers in the Bronx River near East 180th Street -- the sixth and seventh drownings of the season.

"This isn't just an issue about the Bronx river," Jeffrey said, although he pointed out that the place where the teenagers had been swimming is restricted and fenced off.  "We live in a town that's surrounded by water.  Over fourteen miles of beach, lots of rivers--the Bronx River itself is over 7 miles long...we absolutely have to do a better job at teaching people to swim."

"We really have to look at this as a 'we' effort," Jeffrey said.  "it's not just the city, it's parents, it's grandparents, it's schools; we have to take a look at how we prepare our kids."

The city does have plans to improve its free swimming lesson program, according to Jeffrey.  The "ultimate goal" is for every second-grader how to swim.  "We're talking about lots of reform, we're talking about lots of funding, but...we live in a city that's surrounded by water.  We need to make an effort to teach as many kids as possible."

The second-grader program would involve 70,000 schoolchildren; the current Learn to Swim program serves 27,000 students, WNYC reports.

So how can you sign your kids up for free swimming lessons, or get some yourself?

NYC's Department of Parks and Recreation offers free children's swimming lessons each summer in three 3-week sessions.  Called "Learn to Swim," the program has a "tots" class for kids ages one and a half to five, and a "children's'" class for kids ages 6 to 14 that teach "basic water safety and swimming skills," according to the website.

Registration starts at 9 am on July 26, but you should get there early--sign-ups are on a first-come first-serve basis.  "We have people on line from six in the morning," says Parks & Rec P.A. Kashfia Tasmi.  This session runs from July 27 to August 11.  The third and final session runs from August 13 to 27; registration is on August 12. 

Some pools also offer Saturday Learn to Swim Lessons for all ages and an After School program for kids ages 6 to 14, both of which run from February to May.

Jeffrey said that 5000 NYC schoolkids take lessons at public pools during the school day, and 5000 kids are currently enrolled in the summer Learn to Swim program's first session, which ends this week. The second session begins on July 27.

"It's been one of our most successful programs," former Parks and Recreation commissioner Henry Stern told NBCNewYork of the Learn to Swim program.  "Tens of thousands of people over the years have taken the lessons. They're very good and we've had a lot of success with it. The important thing is to give every kid a chance to learn how to swim," he added.

However, when asked if that chance is available to all New York City children, his response was an immediate "No."

"It's not that easy," he replied, but said "the limit should be how many people want to take the [free swimming] course, not how many courses we can give or how many people we can assign to it."

"We hope to make it available to everybody free," said Stern who now runs the good-government watchdog group New York Civic. "This can save your life."

The city's free swimming lessons program began in 1938, when the number of drowning deaths in New York City had reached 400 a year, according to the Parks and Recreation Department website.

The Health Department's archives record drowning deaths starting in 1961, when 145 people died of accidental drowning in a public place.  This number dropped to 22 in 1970, but rose to 43 in 1980.  The number of deaths remained in the mid-to upper-twenties per year in the 80s and 90s, but dropped significantly to an all-time low of 13 in 2000 and since then has remained around the mid-teens, although 22 people drowned in 2004 and 5 in 2002.

Eight people died of drowning in 2008, the most recent year for which the Health Department has data.

More information about the summer and after-school swimming lessons can be found at these links, or for more information go to the Parks Department's website.

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