Hard by the water, lifesaver goes down for the last time

January 31, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

David stood near the edge of the one-meter diving board, but he must have felt like he was atop the Bay Bridge. The board vibrated with his shivering. He was as scared as he was cold.

His fifth-grade classmates chanted, "Da-vid, Da-vid, Da-vid," but the instructor near him whispered encouragements. After a long time looking, David stepped off the board. He bobbed to the surface as cheers echoed off the tiled walls of the Arundel Olympic Swim Center.

The face that David would not put in the water two days before was wet and covered with a triumphant smile.

David is one of about 5,500 Anne Arundel County public school fifth-graders who will be "drownproofed" this year. And he is one of the last. Superintendent Carol S. Parham has cut the $150,000 program from next year's budget.

For 17 years, this program has been teaching non-swimmers not to be afraid around the water and teaching swimmers not to be stupid around it. In a county surrounded by more than 400 miles of tidal shoreline, the five days spent learning water safety is not a luxury. It is a life skill in every sense of the word. Educators at 74 of the 76 elementary schools in Anne Arundel County believe it; they will voluntarily send their fifth-graders this year.

"We would like to be able to continue this valuable and useful program," says Associate Superintendent Kenneth Lawson. "But due to the scarcity of dollars, we made some difficult decisions."

This is not a learn-to-swim program. And it isn't five days of treading water in the deep end of the pool. Kids like David overcome their fear of the water and get a bonus shot of self-confidence educators would like to package and sell.

They learn personal flotation devices do work -- kids won't use what they don't believe in. They learn wet clothes weigh a ton -- even hotshot swimmers can barely tread water in jeans. They learn dockside rescue techniques -- using everything from a towel to a ring buoy.

And everyone learns that if you jump in the water to save a buddy, you are almost certain to drown, too. "Reach or throw. Never go," is now tattooed on their brains next to "Stop, drop and roll."

But unless the Board of Education reinstates drownproofing during budget hearings that begin tomorrow night, kids who can just about walk into the Chesapeake Bay from any neighborhood in the county will not be taught the common sense and respect they must have.

Lawson says the five days fifth-graders spend in the pool would be better spent preparing for the Maryland State Performance Assessment Tests scheduled for the spring. That argument will not impress parents almost universally skeptical of the value of the test.

Lawson said other outdoor education programs that might have been cut instead are closer to the mission of public schools. Hey. I've taught the life cycle of bees at West River Camp. And I've helped first-graders measure tree trunks at Camp Woodlands, and if you ask me, I'd rather have my kids drownproofed.

But nobody asked me. And nobody asked the administrators of Outdoor Education, either. A red line was simply drawn through drownproofing.

Lawson says drownproofing is better paid for by the county's Department of Parks and Recreation. But he admits that department doesn't want to take on the tremendous coordination of parent volunteers and the classroom work that is part of drownproofing.

And drownproofing is de facto required in the county now. How many kids would sign up for it as an after-school activity for which they would have to pay?

There is another issue here, too. You don't have to be poor or black to be afraid of the water -- some of the richest and whitest kids have been terrified at the start of drownproofing week -- but the fact of the matter is, that's how this program breaks.

The kids who have had swim lessons since they were in diapers, the kids who are member of community pools and swim teams -- all have a better chance of surviving a water accident than a child who doesn't have the $1.50 admission to the county indoor pool or the car to get him there.

But cutting drownproofing hurts every child. Some day, my fifth-grade son may see someone struggling in the water. Will his swim-team arrogance send him into that water and perhaps to his death?

Or will he remember, "Reach or throw. Never go"?

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