Swimming lessons become part of Winnipeg School Division curriculum

Some students in the Winnipeg School Division will literally dive into their schoolwork as the WSD partners with the City of Winnipeg to offer swimming lessons as part of the school curriculum.

Program will be offered to Grade 3 and 4 students from January to June 2018 and then re-evaluated

Swimming lessons will be part of the Winnipeg School Division curriculum. (The Associated Press)

Reading, writing and … front crawl.

Some students in the Winnipeg School Division will literally dive into their schoolwork as the WSD partners with the City of Winnipeg to offer swimming lessons as part of the school curriculum.

The water safety education program, called swimming counts, will teach basic swimming skills and water safety education to approximately 2,300 Grade 3 and 4 students from 59 schools in the division.

It will be offered from January to June 2018.

"For many of our students, this will be the first time they have ever been surrounded by waterways. We have immigrant students who are from landlocked countries with few, if any, rivers or lakes," said Winnipeg School Division trustee Mark Wasyliw.

The program will also benefit kids from lower-income neighbourhoods, he said.

"We have many inner-city students who simply haven't had the opportunities that many of us take for granted when it comes to learning about water safety. The swimming counts program is going to save lives by giving our students a basic level of survival skills when it comes to water."

The program was designed to provide streamlined lessons to students to reduce costs, says a news release from the city. It will be offered through three 40-minute lessons in the pool plus one hour of water safety education in a classroom.

The program has been in development, with help from the Canadian Red Cross and the Lifesaving Society, since Wasyliw made a request for it in October 2016. He did that after two Winnipeg School Division students — David Medina, 12, and Jhonalyn Javier, 11 — drowned at Grand Beach that summer.

Trustee Mark Wasyliw announces the swimming counts program at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex on Wednesday. (CBC)

"It was a tragedy and part of this [pilot program] is to respond to that," said Wasyliw.

He emphasized that the program is not intended to replace traditional swimming lessons. Rather, the focus is on life skills around water with some basic swim skills that students can use to save themselves or keep themselves alive until help arrives.

"This is to address an obvious need in our community with the changing demographic," Wasyliw said.

Cubaka Muluma, 15, moved from Uganda to Winnipeg in 2015 and said he's only taken one swimming lesson in his life, here in the city.

The Winnipeg School Division is bringing back school swim lessons, partly to help newcomer students who may not know how to swim and be safe in the water. CBC's Laura Glowacki reports. 2:22

Lessons around water safety are needed, especially for kids and teens who are new Canadians, he said.

"Some people when they move to Canada, they want to have fun, and most of them find swimming fun," said Cubaka. "But most of them don't know how to swim and that's the problem."

He's had a close call himself at a local pool, he said.

"I've been with my friend to the YMCA, and I saw them swimming - 'cause they know how to swim - and I wanted to follow them. I didn't know that it was deeper at the end. I just started following them. I almost drowned.

"A lifeguard asked me if I know how to swim and I just said yes because I just wanted to have fun and still play with my friends."

Cubaka Muluma, 15, said he nearly drowned at a local pool because he didn't know the pool got deeper the further he went in. (CBC)

Once the pilot program has ended, it will be evaluated and, if successful, considered for other Winnipeg schools, the city said.

"It's dollars well spent and the City of Winnipeg will certainly work with other school divisions," said Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, chair of the city's standing policy committee on protection, community services and parks. "I think it's a great program."

For his part, Wasyliw intends to push for it to become a permanent part of the school division's curriculum.

The $63,000 cost for the pilot program is coming from the division's reserves but Wasyliw said he wants it to become a perennial line item in the division's annual $408-million budget.

"When you consider that we potentially could be saving lives with this program, $63,000 is a drop in the bucket," he said.

"I think we can afford it and need to afford it."

The school division offered swimming lessons in the past but it has been a decade or two since that happened, Wasyliw said.

"The province has chronically underfunded public education since the [Gary] Filmon years. We used to spend five per cent of our GDP on education and we now spend half that amount, around 2.3 per cent, and dropping," he said.

"As a result of provincial cutbacks in public education, programs have been cut and it is my understanding that one of the first cut during that time period was the swim lesson program."

With files from Laura Glowacki