It’s not a lesson they’ll learn in the pages of a book, by punching numbers into a calculator or even by taking notes in class.
In fact, most children would say these classes take place in an environment that would rival any playground’s fun-factor.
And for one Northland school district, the lessons could combat one of the leading causes of death among children in the U.S.
For the past 12 years, the North Kansas City School District has spearheaded an after-school swim program that teaches kids about water safety.
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In Sarah Farsace’s view, it’s just part of the North Kansas City School District’s mission to offer extraordinary experiences to children.
“It’s one of the most rewarding programs that we offer,” said Farsace, Meadowbrook Elementary physical education teacher and district swim coordinator.
The No Swimmer Left Behind program, founded in 2004, began at Gracemor Elementary when now-retired physical education teacher Bob Dever — who co-taught with Farsace — developed the idea to screen kids for their swimming ability.
Dever applied for an education foundation grant — given each year to seven schools within the district — to bus Gracemor third-graders to the North Kansas City Community Center for screening at the center’s pool.
“Swimming is the number one preventable death for children,” Farsace said. “That is an important life skill for children to have.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 people die every day from drowning, two of whom are children age 14 and younger. Between 2005 and 2014, 3,536 people died annually from unintentional drownings.
The number of kids who did not pass the test was eye-opening: More than 50 percent of the Gracemor students were unable to swim.
To increase students’ pass rates and exposure to water, in 2009 Farsace and Dever proposed a district-wide screening for third-graders, as well as an after-school swim program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The district would provide transportation for students from school to the Gladstone Community Center for lessons with certified American Red Cross instructors.
In 2011, the district began the proposed program where all third-graders, with a parent’s consent, were screened free of charge. That spring, the district screened 1,383 students: only 46 percent, or 634 students, passed.
Carol Kent, a retired North Kansas City School District physical education teacher, screens the students for the district. She has managed swim lessons at the Gladstone Community Center since the 1970s.
Kent says students’ ability to swim often depends on whether they’ve had exposure to water. Many of the students she screens, she added, have never been in a swimming pool.
“The kids pretty much know when they made it or not,” Kent said of the screening. “What we try to do is even for those who don’t make it, we try to point out how far they got.
“They discover that if they have even a little bit of skill, that can help them save their life at one point.”
The screening, which runs from January to March during the school day, consists of a two-part series that includes a 25-meter swim across the pool — using any stroke or swim technique the student chooses — and a 30-second exercise where students either tread water or float without touching the floor or grabbing the wall. Students are required to complete both exercises successfully to pass the screening.
“They are basing that off of, if you fall into a body of water (where) you can’t touch, you can typically get to shore or something you can hold onto,” said Marshall McKinney, aquatics specialist for Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts for the city of Gladstone.
Farsace, who organizes the swim screens and acts as a liaison for swim lessons at the center, said students are screened only once.
“We would love to be able to offer a pre- and post-test in the district, but time, cost and pool availability make that challenging,” Farsace said. Instead, the district bases improvement on the annual screening results.
In 2016, of the 1,557 students screened, about 51 percent, or 788 students, passed the screening.
McKinney said screening results usually motivate students to take lessons to improve their swimming ability. In 2015, around 150 North Kansas City School District students in kindergarten through fifth grade participated in the after-school swim lessons at the community center.
“I get to be taught new strokes… Strokes that will help me swim better and help me in case of an emergency,” said Meadowbrook fourth-grader and swim student Lily Tice, 9.
Lily said she plans to continue her lessons next year.
Meadowbrook kindergartner Jude Bradham, age 5, said, “I get to do things that make me learn how to swim.”
Jude’s favorite activity is jumping off the pool wall and playing with his friends, he said.
The community center offers North Kansas City School District students a 25 percent discount at a cost of $45 for a four-week session. The district also received a Brandon McPherson Memorial Foundation grant of $475 to cover the cost for students who can’t afford lessons.
Briarcliff, Meadowbrook, Linden West, Gashland, Oakwood Manor, Clardy and Chapel Hill elementary schools currently participate. Transportation is provided for four of the seven elementary schools.
Each session includes eight, 45-minute lessons that run from September to May with one session a year for each school.
The program includes seven levels that meet the American Red Cross requirements and involve exercises like holding one’s breath, submerging one’s entire head underwater for three seconds and performing the elementary backstroke for 25 yards. Once students have completed a level, they receive a checklist of skills they are able to complete “so parents are aware,” Farsace said.
Sarah Chipman, 17, swim instructor at Gladstone Community Center, said the biggest hurdle is often getting kids used to being in the water.
“I am always in the water right next to them,” Chipman said. “That usually helps them just knowing I won’t leave them. Sometimes they just need reassurance.”
Aquatics specialist McKinney said seeing the kids’ progression is rewarding.
“You watch them throughout the day and they get deeper and more courageous,” McKinney said. “That is what is cool.”
Farsace says the lessons, which include 30 students per session, have become so popular that they had to turn away students this year.
Many factors contribute to its popularity, parents said.
Parent Jene’ Bradham said she’s thankful her son is learning how to get to the edge of a pool, if he were to fall in.
“It gives the opportunity to practice swimming still even though it’s winter and our neighborhood pool is closed,” Bradham said.
The goal is for more schools in the district to get involved, said Farsace. What began as a single-school endeavor, she said, could eventually serve as model for schools beyond the district to foster change and develop proficient swimmers in the community.
“This program is a great example of how one teacher can become passionate about what they do,” Farsace said.
“And with the support of a dynamic school district like NKC, we are able to make a positive impact on our students and community.”