Murphy: ready to make a splash? Lucy Gellman Photos.
Joseph Murphy looked down at a maze of blue, green and white tiles spreading out around his toes. He looked up at instructor Ian McCool, arms flexed and ready to receive him. He waved his arms once, and brought them back down to his sides.
Then, bending his knees, he leapt.
A student at Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School, 4-year-old Murphy is one of over 50 students starting another season of swimming lessons with New Haven’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees. Offered on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at John D. Martinez School in Fair Haven, classes run through Nov. 9. They are $100 per 12-lesson session ($125 for non-New Haveners), with some scholarship options for families that have more than one child.
The program is at 90 percent enrollment, with a maximum capacity for 60 students. Future sessions will start in January 2018; more information on the department’s website.
The lessons ring in another year of aquatic education designed for public school students. After success with open swims this summer, Parks & Rec is also offering open swims at John Martinez School on Wednesdays from 5-8 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and at James Hillhouse High School on Thursdays from 4-7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. “Senior Swim Fridays” also run at Career High School from 4-6 p.m. each Friday. Open swim options run through now through May 23.
In tandem, said swim coordinator Robert Davis, those structured and open swim options are designed to get New Haveners in the water, and out of harm’s way. In recent years, the department has worked to shrink class size, giving students focused attention as they grab their kickboards, pool noodles and bathing suits. The student-to-teacher ratio is now 3:1.
Davis: As much attention per child as possible.
“We try to give children as much attention as we can,“ said Davis, who has helped coordinate the sessions and supervise the lifeguards for the past 10 years. “It seems to work well … students seem to like it.”
In a given year, approximately 240 of those students pass through the program. Most are from New Haven’s public schools, but a few tend to trickle in from nearby towns. Davis said that he hears frequently from parents that they’ve enrolled their kids because of safety concerns.
According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, unintentional drowning still claims almost 30 lives in the state per year. That's just what is reported. That number also carries with it a continued national trend: Black and Latino kids, as well as children of recent immigrants, are still more likely to drown than their white peers.
“That’s their concern,” Davis said of parents. “The problem is getting them [students] here. ”
To accommodate parents, Davis said the department has opened as many time slots as it can, offering classes at 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, a full group of parents lined a window ledge by the pool.
Instructor Brian Coppage with two students. Coppage, who has been teaching for over seven years, is now the head teacher/lifeguard on duty at John D. Martinez.
30 minutes in, it had been unofficially dubbed “the sauna” by Joseph’s mom, Estelle Murphy.
“It’s important to teach them how to swim at an early age,” said Murphy, watching as Joseph and his older sister Asia cut through the water on matching red kickboards. “Kids love the water. They love to be in the water, so it’s a necessity that they learn to be comfortable in the water.”
“It’s always the biggest thing about vacations,” she said. “They ask: Is there a pool? Not the hotel. Just: Is there a pool.”
She added that she never learned to swim as a kid growing up in Hartford. But watching her kids in the water “makes me also want to take swimming lessons for myself.”
Joseph and Asia Murphy. While this is Joseph's first season swimming, his sister has been in the program for three seasons.
Back in the water, McCool instructed Joseph on kicking with his face in the water, and leaping forward with a kickboard at the ready for freestyle. A prospective student at Gateway Community College, McCool grew up in New Haven’s Annex neighborhood, swimming in the pool and on beaches from a young age. He said he teaches and lifeguards partly for the money, but largely to give kids the same opportunity he had.
“This is a great job to have,” he said after the lesson had ended. “If you start swimming early, you can be a lifeguard, do swimming — and there’s the safety part of it.”
Just moments before, he had held Murphy and instructed him to work on a strong kick, necessary for a burgeoning freestyle and for staying afloat. As Murphy's feet worked furiously back and forth, a small trail of green foam went up around him.
It was progress, he said. Slow and steady. On the first day of classes last week, the two concentrated on standing and running in place in the pool’s shallow end, laying partially submerged on the pool’s steps, and dipping one’s face in the water. Nearby, Asia Murphy worked on her mid-stroke freestyle form, placing her arms above her head in a sharp triangle. Now, Joseph was that much closer to catching up with her.
“My favorite part is kicking,” he said after the class, a towel draped around his shoulders like a cape, “because that’s how you learn how to swim.”