Splash program presents dilemma for Richmond County school board members

It’s a question that weighs what would be lost in several hours versus what could be saved in a few seconds.

Is taking the time to teach underprivileged children to swim during school worth losing even a minute of class instruction?

The Family Y of Greater Augusta is offering free swim lessons to the district’s 2,555 second-graders but would require the pupils to leave class for two hours each day for five consecutive days to complete the course.

Danny McConnell, the president and CEO of Family Y, said the sacrifice could potentially save a child’s life, but some Richmond County school board members are concerned about the cost: a loss of instructional time after the district learned it performed the worst on state tests among 12 similar school systems across Georgia.

“I think it’s a good program, but the only problem I have is they’re offering it during school instruction time, time we’re not in a position to lose right now,” board Vice President Venus Cain said. “Where do we draw the line on what is a school’s responsibility and what’s not the school’s responsibility?”

Richmond County Board of Education members will decide today whether the district should allow pupils to leave class for water safety lessons through the Family Y’s Splash program.

McConnell said he understands the dilemma but added that many Richmond County children are at risk of drowning because they’d never get an opportunity for formal lessons.

“There’s such a tremendous need,” McConnell said. “We are a water community with the river and lake and ponds and pools. There’s access and, of course, there’s a lot of kids that don’t have a chance to get experience for water safety.”

If approved, the program would run during the remainder of the school year, alternating schools each week until all second-graders complete the five-day course. If would begin in January.

McConnell said holding the classes during school is the only viable option because of transportation barriers for families that would come up after school or during holiday breaks.

“Once you leave school hours, many of the kids would get lost in the shuffle,” he said.

With Splash, the Family Y would provide transportation from schools to each of the three pool sites and drive the pupils back before dismissal.

The program is free to the school system, with the $50,000 cost covered by sponsors.

McConnell said this is the first time pitching the idea in Richmond County, although he conducted the classes for Liberty County, Ga., students in 2001.

Board member Helen Minchew said the issue is conflicting.

“I’m very pulled because we’re at the bottom and we’ve got to have improvement,” Minchew said. “If some of these kids are already behind, it’s just putting a lot of additional pressure on those teachers to try to make it up and catch them up.”

School Board President Alex Howard said last week that the program is worth the time commitment because of what it offers.

“I think it’s worth it if it could even save just one life,” Howard said.

Because the school board’s Student Services Committee gave initial approval to Splash last week, the full board must vote the program up or down today.

McConnell said he hopes to get access to the schools but will come up with an alternative if the motion fails. For the last two Mays, McConnell has done an open invitation-type Splash program for any child interested but had only about 500 participate, far fewer than he envisioned.

“The goal is that every kid gets that basic level of understanding,” McConnell said.

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