Nine-year-old Mayciee Bell didn’t know how to swim. She hadn’t even spent much time around water before last week.
“Only one weekend, with my friend,” the Derby second-grader said.
Now, thanks to a partnership between Derby public schools and the Derby Recreation Commission, Mayciee and her classmates are learning to float, kick, paddle, tread water and feel safer around pools, ponds and lakes.
A $5,000 grant from Make A Splash, an initiative of the USA Swimming Foundation, will help finance the Unsinkables program, which started in 2009 and aims to teach basic water safety to every Derby second-grader.
“We see it as a valuable life skill,” said Tonya Sullivan, aquatic program coordinator for the Derby Recreation Center.
“Some of these kids have had lessons before. Others, this is their first time in the water,” she said. “When they’re done with the program, every one will have made progress and will be safer in the water.”
For two weeks during their second-grade year, students from eight of nine Derby elementary schools travel by bus to the recreation center to get swimming instruction through a curriculum that teaches water safety, basic swim strokes and how to enjoy the water.
Wineteer Elementary, a school at McConnell Air Force Base, is not participating this year because of logistical challenges getting to and from the recreation center in the allotted time.
Sullivan said the Unsinkables program is intended to reduce accidental drownings. And because research shows that children who don’t learn to swim by third grade likely never learn, the program targets second-grade students, she said.
“Second grade is a good age, because they’re a little more independent,” she said. “We start with very basic water safety and go from there.”
On Wednesday, instructor Rachel Root led her group of students through floating and swimming drills, guiding them across the pool as they splashed and kicked.
“OK, let me see whales!” Root said, spreading her arms wide. “Start with a front float and turn aaalllll the way over on your back.”
Eight-year-old Emily Reed bobbed in and out of the water, shaking her head and wiping her eyes each time she emerged.
“It’s fun. I like to practice doing streamline dives,” she said.
Her friend Mikaela Cornell said her favorite part of the class so far was when the students got to wear life jackets and float in deep water, practicing what to do if they ever are in a boat that capsizes.
“We learned how to huddle together for warmth,” Mikaela said. “And you put the little ones in the middle.”
The Unsinkables program serves about 500 second-graders a year.
Nicole Hubbard, a second-grade teacher at Pleasantview Elementary, said her students look forward to their two-week session at the recreation center. Classes split into small groups, and while one group swims, others play games in the gymnasium and learn about nutrition and fitness.
“A lot of kids come to me and tell me they never swam before,” Hubbard said. “If they just learn to float, that’s important. … And they have a lot of fun.”