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Grant to keep middle school students afloat
Swimming lessons for Gainesville Middle given at community center
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Hundreds of sixth-graders may finally learn to swim this fall.

Through a USA Swimming Foundation grant, Gainesville Middle School students will be able to attend swimming lessons at Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center and take a dip in the pool.

For a second year, Gainesville City Schools and Gainesville Parks and Recreation have been given more than $3,000 from the foundation’s Make a Splash initiative as one of 12 organizations chosen nationally to help their students swim.

“Fair Street Elementary used to have a pool, and all students in fourth and fifth grade got lessons,” said Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. “When it closed, we started writing grants to anyone we could to get funding for at least one grade level to have water safety instruction.”

The program went so well last year, they decided to apply again.

“Students received swimming instruction who never had before,” Dyer said.

With Frances Meadows right next to the middle school, the partnership and logistics “work great,” said Julie Butler, Parks and Recreation marketing and communications coordinator who wrote the grant proposals.

“USA Swimming has done a lot of research and passed along to us that certain groups of children are more at risk for drowning,” she said. “We identified that 75 percent of our sixth-grade class could fall under those categories.”

The 2008 USA Swimming study, conducted through the University of Memphis Department of Health & Sport Sciences, produced some of the first data about drowning risk related to ethnicity. The data stated that 31 percent of white respondents are “at-risk” swimmers, compared with 58 percent of African-American respondents and 56 percent of Hispanic respondents.

The data backed up a 2005 Aquatics International study that found minority children are statistically three times more likely to drown than white children. The findings pointed to a number of factors, including parents not being able to swim, family exercise habits and family income.

“Our ultimate goal is to teach every child how to swim, and here we’re starting with the sixth grade,” Butler said. “Last year, during the first session when we had the skills test to determine what level to put the students in, 85 to 90 percent of them didn’t know how to float.”

The lessons served about 450 students, with 50 to 60 students rotating through the program based on school schedules and physical education classes. Each student takes eight sessions during the year, which includes lessons in floating, kicking, water safety, breathing, treading, diving, self-rescue and several strokes.

“Swimming is a year-round physical activity, and kids have the opportunity to learn a fun exercise they can use during their lifetime,” Butler said. “We hope if they learn to swim here, they take it back to their families and help educate how important it is to be safe in the water.”