Jasmine Riaz was nervous before stepping into the swimming pool at the YMCA in Blue Springs three weeks ago.

Jasmine Riaz was nervous before stepping into the swimming pool at the YMCA in Blue Springs three weeks ago.

“I have never learned how to swim before,” said the second grader at Franklin Smith Elementary. “But it’s really fun. I really like to swim now. The only thing I don’t like is that when you get out, it makes you really cold.”

The YMCA of Greater Kansas City started the Learn to Swim program several years ago. Modeled after a program by a YMCA in Tennessee, the program offers free swim lessons to public school students in three-week sessions. More than 60 elementary schools throughout the United States are involved in the Learn to Swim Program; however, this is only the first year that the program has been offered at any Blue Springs schools. The schools chosen for the program are Franklin Smith, James Walker and Thomas Ultican, which are the district’s Title I schools.

“The goal is simply to teach children how to swim,” said Katie Woolf, executive director of the YMCA in Blue Springs. “We really believe that we are saving lives through these lessons because they are learning what to do when they are in the water.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14. In 2007, there were 3,443 unintentional drownings, not related to boats, in the United States. More than one in five were children 14 or younger.

“When we first learned of the opportunity, our first thought was how could this be done,” said Cassie Gengelbach, administrative intern at Franklin Smith. “I know that fifth graders were involved in a similar program years ago, and we knew how important it was for the children to know how to swim. I was more astonished when we got the permission slips back and saw how many marked beginner or absolute beginner (in swimming).”

The three-week session includes two, one-hour classes per week. Students are divided into small groups based on their skill level and learn skills, swimming strokes and other life-saving information. Jeff Dorris, physical education teacher at Franklin Smith, said the schedule was reconfigured at the school in order for the swimming lessons to count as the students’ physical education requirements. Parents had the option to opt out of the swim lessons, but only five of the school’s 80 second graders did so.

“These lessons are not only great for students to learn swimming techniques, but it also gives many of them confidence,” he said. “We have several students who might not excel in the gym, but they get into the pool and can swim 25 yards. They find something that they are good at and that gives them confidence, which carries over into the classroom.”

According to the CDC, formal swimming lessons, such as what is being offered through the Learn-to-Swim Program, can protect children from accidental drowning. Lilly Jones, a second grader at Franklin Smith, said she is excited to know how to swim because she is no longer afraid of getting into the water.

“I have learned how to float on my stomach and back, but my favorite thing is to jump into the water,” she said. “It is important to know how to swim, so you don’t drown. You have to know the rules because if you don’t, you could drown.”

The swim lessons are funded through private donations. Woolf said it is the YMCA’s goal to eventually offer the program to all second graders in the school district, and it is looking for other funding options to expand the program.

“I saw a little girl three weeks ago crying because she did not want to get into the water. This week, she was crying on her way out because she did not want to leave the pool. That shows how the children are responding to this program,” she said. “We believe it is so important to have this kind of opportunity, and we hope to be able to offer it to all second graders in the future.”

Kole Collins, a Franklin Smith second grader, said he already knew how to swim before the program started, but he was excited to be able to expand his skills.

“I have been able to learn the backstroke and the breaststroke in my lessons, but I really like to do freestyle,” he said. “I think everyone should know how to swim in case they fall into a pond or something. That way you can always be able to save yourself.”