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Mandatory swimming lessons a lifeline in Boston

Children ages 10 to 12 participated in a mandatory swimming lesson at the Boys & Girls Club in Roxbury.

Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe

Children ages 10 to 12 participated in a mandatory swimming lesson at the Boys & Girls Club in Roxbury.

The announcement to parents provoked raised eyebrows and head shakes: At the Boys & Girls Club in Roxbury, Andrea Swain declared, all children would take swim lessons.

“You could feel the fear in the room,” said Swain, executive director of the organization’s Yawkey Club on Warren Street. “It’s amazing that in 2012, you would have to convince parents to give their children free lessons.”

Lifeguards and swimming instructors played a game of water polo at the Boys & Girls Club in Roxbury, where children are required to take swim lessons.

Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe

Lifeguards and swimming instructors played a game of water polo at the Boys & Girls Club in Roxbury, where children are required to take swim lessons.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston is nearly one year into an initiative requiring all members to take swim lessons. The program, launched last fall, is part of an aggressive approach to combat child-drowning deaths — especially among the city’s black and Hispanic children, who are at a significantly higher risk.

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“Every summer, you hear these horrendous stories about kids drowning, and it always tore at my heart,” said Jerry Steimel, the organization’s executive vice president of operations. “We felt like we needed to be a little more intentional in our efforts to teach them how to swim.”

The approach taken by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston mirrors efforts nationwide to increase swimming rates among children of color. Seventy percent of black children and 60 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim, compared with 42 percent of white children, according to a 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children die in drownings at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts.

Lowering those numbers has become a prime initiative for the USA Swimming Foundation. In 2007, it launched a campaign called Make A Splash , which pays for free or reduced-cost swim lessons. The foundation selected Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones, who is black, as the campaign’s public face.

“There are a number of reasons why children in African-American and Hispanic communities aren’t learning how to swim, but the overall cause is lack of exposure,” said Talia Mark, the multicultural marketing manager at the USA Swimming Foundation.

‘Every summer, you hear these horrendous stories about kids drowning, and it always tore at my heart. We felt like we needed to be a little more intentional in our efforts to teach them how to swim.’

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Parents who grew up without swimming lessons typically do not realize how important the skill can be, Mark said.

“They may not see it as a priority, something that’s as important as riding a bike with a helmet,” Mark said.

Jeff Wiltse, an associate professor of history at University of Montana and author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” said current disparities can be traced, in part, to a lack of access to swimming pools decades ago. While public pools in the Northeast were not closed to minorities by law, blacks and Hispanics were typically unwelcome by mostly white patrons.

“Black Americans were systematically denied access to the vast, vast majority of swimming pools,” Wiltse said. “Swimming never became a part, generally, of black American recreational culture.”

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, which serves a largely black and Hispanic population, mandatory swim lessons arose from an astonishing realization: About 70 percent of the club’s 5,000 members in Boston do not know how to swim.

Five children in Boston died in accidental drownings between 1999 and 2009, the last years for which statistics were available, according to the Boston Public Health Commission, which does not track the race or ethnicity of child-drowning victims.

“If kids are coming out of our programs not knowing how to swim, then shame on us,” said Josh Kraft, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

Adrian Smith, the Yawkey Club’s aquatic director, said tragedies occur when children without adequate swim training encounter pools or oceans without realizing how dangerous water can be.

“They go out and they have this Superman mentality,” Smith said. “But then things start to get real scary for them pretty fast.”

The efforts have yielded some success: In the past year, 450 children from the organization’s 10 Boston locations have learned to swim. At the Yawkey Club, swim lessons are now a daily part of summer camp, and it has made a difference: Of the club’s 320 members, 187 have learned to swim in the past year.

In past years, swim lessons there were optional — young people could spend a decade as members without ever stepping foot in the water. Now, all children take a test to determine their skill level and are then placed into a swim class that matches their abilities.

Close to half of parents of children enrolled at the Yawkey Club initially balked when they learned their child would be swimming, Swain said.

“I was nervous — like, is my kid going to come home?” said India Bartie, whose 9-year-old son Malik began swimming at the Yawkey Club. “In the beginning, it was really hard. For parents, your worst nightmare is seeing your kid drown.”

Bartie needed to be convinced to allow Malik to take lessons. She does not know how to swim. It never came up, she said, because her mother doesn’t know how to swim. At pools or at the beach, she only ventures into chest-deep water.

Last week at the Yawkey Club, 40 boys and girls in swimming caps lined up against the sides of the pool, waist-deep in water. Much of the lesson focused on encouraging them to feel comfortable in the water: bobbing up and down, sticking their faces in the water, kicking their legs soft and hard. Splashing was definitely encouraged.

Lifeguard Michael Christman pointed his hands in front of him, his head tucked between his biceps, to demonstrate the streamline position.

“None of this!” he said, popping his head above his arms. “Keep your face down.”

When 9-year-old Djuan Slade started swim lessons, he said his mother’s concerns freaked him out.

“At first, I thought I was going to drown,” said Djuan, who lives in Dorchester. Pretty soon, he got the hang of it. “Now, I can pass the deep-end test!”

It took his mother, LaToya Slade, a little longer to feel at ease.

“He would come home and say, ‘I did a belly flop!’” she said. “And I’d be like, ‘You did a what?’”

While the children performed drills, kicking back and forth in the shallow ends of the pool, a staff member videotaped the lesson. They plan to show the tape at next year’s orientation session to allay parents’ fears about allowing their kids in the water.

And Swain hopes the videos will encourage parents in another way: The Yawkey Club will start offering adult swimming lessons next year.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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