Tim Bobko

The parent of a camper who attends a half-day summer school program explained to me one day that she had never learned to swim and has regretted it ever since. Mrs. Lopez implored me to find a solution so that her son, and other campers who were missing swim instruction due to their summer school schedules, could learn this critical life-skill.

We were immediately interested.

Providing swim lessons to as many Princeton residents as possible is a top priority every summer at Community Park Pool in Princeton, N.J. We offer many group lesson options, as well as lessons to our entire day camp program, which includes approximately 300 campers in grades 1-6. Swim instruction and all aquatic programming historically have occurred each morning prior to the pool opening for public swim.

Approximately 100 summer campers participate in the half-day school program each morning, which leads to them often missing the opportunity to participate in swim lessons. After exploring possible scheduling and transportation adjustments with our local school district, it became clear that it was going to be up to our staff to find a way for these campers to participate in swim lessons.

Many summer-school students who attend camp are African-American and Latino — and many families also qualify for free or reduced lunch based on household income levels. The USA Swimming Foundation reported in 2017 that results from a study by the University of Memphis and the University of Las Vegas found 64 percent of African-American children and 45 percent of Latino children have no/low swimming ability. The study found that children in a free/reduced lunch program are 63 percent less likely to have good swimming abilities and 79 percent of children in households with less than $50,000 of income have no/low swim abilities.

Representing a very diverse community, these statistics keep me up at night.

Despite scheduling, transportation and other logistical barriers, my staff “took the plunge” to create an afternoon swim lessons program for the summer-school campers, held twice weekly in 30-minute blocks between 1:45 and 2:45 p.m.

Thanks to precise coordination by our staff, my concern about bucking our own history and attempting to conduct lessons during a busy public swim time slot became a non-issue. The afternoon swim lessons provided twice-per-week instruction to nearly 100 children, and by moving the summer-schoolers out of the morning lessons, it allowed us to staff both sets of lessons more efficiently, maintaining our preferred instructor/student ratio and also avoiding being over-staffed.

Many campers graduated from Level 1 to 2, or higher, and some even reached a proficiency level that allowed them to use the diving board and slide! Due to our staff’s vision, flexibility and commitment to being solution finders, we turned a loss into a win for our community. Oh, and we convinced Mrs. Lopez to enroll in adult swim lessons and she is now a regular slide user!

Lessons Learned

1. Turn barriers into opportunities. What we perceived as barriers became opportunities to provide additional services — and to provide them more efficiently.

2. Don’t talk about — be about it. Everyone agreed that a solution was needed. After many meetings discussing the issue, we stopped participating in meetings and mapped out a solution.

3. Don’t allow history to dictate the future. Our pool users are territorial about their time slots and pool spaces. My hesitancy to upset the apple cart by introducing a large-scale programming option during a busy public swim time is something that I wish I’d abandoned much sooner in this case.