Metco children getting in the swim in Wayland
At 2:30 every Wednesday afternoon, the laughter, splashing, and high-pitched shrieks of students learning to swim at the Wayland Community Pool is deafening.
Each corner of the massive pool is filled with 40 Wayland High School students teaching 61 young students from Boston, wearing multicolored swim caps and goggles, to kick, dive, and stay afloat in the water.
“I call it the program of joy,’’ said Mabel Reid-Wallace, director of the Metco program for the Wayland school system. “The kids are so joyous. They can’t wait to get in the water and don’t want to get out.’’
The Water Warriors is a 12-week swim lesson and safety program run by volunteer students and adults for elementary and middle school students in Wayland through Metco. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity is an independent, state-funded organization that arranges for African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students from Boston to attend schools in suburban communities.
Now in its fourth year, Water Warriors has doubled in size after starting with 30 students in 2011, said Janet Schwartz, a local swim team coach who oversees the program. Her daughter, Isabel, started the program at the suggestion of an elementary school teacher, who was concerned that many Metco students were missing out on social activities in the community because they didn’t know how to swim.
According to a study of six urban areas nationwide commissioned by USA Swimming, nearly 70 percent of African-American children and nearly 60 percent of Latino/Hispanic children have no or low swimming skills. And while drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 14, participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent.
Schwartz said they didn’t know how many students would sign up, but each year the program has grown. Not only does the program help the Metco students, but the high schoolers are earning community service hours and building new relationships, she said.
“To my surprise it was as popular with the high school kids as it was for those learning how to swim,’’ Schwartz said.
Now that Isabel has moved on to college, her sister, Maddy Schwartz, has taken over the program with her mother. A longtime swimmer, the Wayland High junior said she enjoys working one-on-one with the youngest students.
“They come in so excited with the biggest smiles on their faces,’’ Maddy Schwartz said. “They love every minute they are in the water. I love the feeling of seeing them so happy.’’
Schwartz said that for many of the students, it is their first exposure to swimming, so they are also learning how to be safe around water.
“This is life or death, particularly in New England where there is water everywhere,’’ Schwartz said.
After its program’s first year, seven Metco participants could swim one length of the pool; last year, 25 swimmers were making it all the way across by the end of the program, Schwartz said.
Kayla Simpson, a fifth-grader from Boston, said she couldn’t stay above the water when she started the program as a second-grader, and now she has the confidence to move away from the wall and swim across the pool.
“Everybody in my family calls me a fish because I love water,’’ Simpson said. “I’ve become really good at swimming and diving. This let me follow a dream I had for a long time.’’
Kai Drayton, a first-grader from Boston, said she likes floating on her back, and looks forward to playing pool volleyball and water polo when she learns to swim better.
“I like it because you get to practice swimming,’’ she said. “When you get older, you can go in the water without plugging your nose.’’
Drayton said the water is cold at first, so she likes to jump out of the water and then get back in so it feels warmer.
Denzel Samuel, a high school freshman from Boston, started taking lessons as a sixth-grader, and is now teaching the younger students.
“It feels really great to be able to help them,’’ he said.
Samuel said he could only swim half-way across the pool when he started, but one of the high school students worked with him one-on-one each week. Next year, he wants to join the Wayland High swim team.
Stefi Geiger, a senior who worked with Samuel each week, said it’s been rewarding to watch him improve.
“It worked. It made him confident enough to start teaching,’’ said Geiger, who is on the high school swim team. “For me, the best part is seeing the kids progress.’’
In addition to the high school volunteers who teach the lessons, several adults, including Wayland swim team coaches, supervise the instruction, which follows the American Red Cross Learn to Swim guidelines.
The classes are divided into groups of six or eight students; the students with the least experience are paired up one-on-one. The elementary school children typically take part in lessons, while the middle school students practice strokes and play games like water polo.
The class lasts about 40 minutes, and then the students take a bus back to Boston.
Schwartz said the program costs about $6,000 for the 12 weeks, most of which goes toward the transportation and pool rental. Most of the swimming caps and goggles are donated, and all of the instructors and supervisors are volunteers.
Schwartz said the program is funded by small family foundations and individual contributions.
Reid-Wallace said coming up with the funding is always a challenge, but it’s been worth the effort. She said the program has changed the lives of many students.
“It’s a life skill they are getting,’’ she said. “They’ll be able to go to the beach or pool and be safe.’’
Donations can be sent to the Water Warriors Club, c/o Heidi Friedlander, Wayland High School, 264 Old Connecticut Path, Wayland, MA 01778.