After a several-second face dunk into the ocean, the sixth-grade boy sprouted up from the water for air.
“Alright, that’s good!” instructor Deb Bundy said. “Now try again, and stay under until you get to the lady.”
The Gladys A. Abraham Elementary School student and novice swimmer filled his lungs, steeled his nerves, and proceeded to bravely “prune glide” toward the photographer waiting a dozen feet ahead.
Brewers Bay beach, the blue sky, and the Caribbean Sea were the classroom for the swimmer and 70 more of the school’s sixth-graders, who approached Wednesday’s water-safety and basic swimming lesson with varying degrees of fear, excitement, and joy.
Health teacher Vincent Henley said this was the second week of a 7-week-long program, which the school has organized for the last four years.
On Wednesday, four Red Cross Water Safety-certified instructors – along with Henley, who is also a lifeguard at Magens Bay – taught the students in two 45-minute-long sessions. The first was for girls only, and the second was reserved for boys. The teachers said this system worked better than mixed-gender swim classes they’d tried in the past.
Henley said the previous week’s session had covered several safety essentials every Virgin Islander needs to know. For example, Henley said, if someone is struggling in the ocean, a rescuer should go into the water only as a last resort; first they should try to throw something, such as a rope with a bottle tied to the end, so the ailing person can be pulled back to shore.
Henley and his fellow instructors said many of their students have little swimming experience, but recent reports claiming 90 percent or more of the territory’s public school students do not know how to swim were incorrect.
Instructor Bob Cook said that because there has never been a scientifically conducted survey on the matter, pinpointing a precise figure is impossible. Fifteen years ago, when Cook was first trained to be a Red Cross instructor, his bosses told him approximately 80 percent of native Virgin Islands students could not swim. Today, Cook and his fellow instructors said that figure appears to be closer to 50 or 60 percent – though again, that estimate is based on what they’ve observed in their classes, not on an official survey.
On Wednesday, some sixth-grade boys bristled at going underwater, while others took pleasure in practicing their flutter kicks or breaststroke for the camera.
Under V.I. Code, public school students must be taught swimming and water safety for at least one school year, for one hour per week, and by Red Cross-certified instructors such as Cook.
Gladys Abraham Principal Lisa Hassell-Forde said many schools find it difficult to meet this mandate, as it can be expensive and logistically difficult to move large groups of students to the beach during school hours. Hassell-Forde said that in past years, her school has used federal Title V funds, which are dedicated to “innovative programming,” to pay for the program, but that they were not permitted to do so this year. To keep her school’s program going, a private donor stepped up to pay the instructor stipends and other costs – and it’s a really good thing the donor did, Hassell-Forde said.
“We live in a really beautiful place on this fabulous island, and it’s important that the children know how to swim,” Hassell-Forde said.
Hassell-Forde, Henley and the other instructors said that parents often pass on their fear of water to their children without telling their kids what made them afraid of the water in the first place. Henley said children would be better served by knowing about their parents’ negative experiences, which usually involved a near-drowning as a kid. By knowing what caused their parents’ fears, children could learn how to prevent the same thing from happening to them.
Learning how to float, kick, and hold their breath under water seemed to sit well with the sixth-grade boys, who emerged from the water sporting smiles.
“This here,” Michah Fountain said, “it feel exciting.”
“It feel good,” added his classmate, De’Jhane Amey.
“It feel nice,” Fountain added, “and they teach you how to swim.”
Kajien Stevens, who wants to be an actor when he grows up, said his favorite place to swim when he is not in school is Magens Bay. His friend, Lewis Cuevas, who wants to be a baseball player, said he also likes to go to Magens for recreational swimming fun.
The 11-year-old shivered slightly as he assessed the day’s class.
“I think it was cool,” Cuevas said. He sprinted off to find a towel and his way back to school where he will wait with anticipation for next week’s field trip to the beach.