Lisa Willson and her partner, both emergency medical technicians, know firsthand how important it is for children to learn how to swim when they live in a city surrounded by water.
“We both see more than we want to, near-drownings mostly,” said Willson, whose son, Zachary, is 5. “It’s hard, especially with children.”
Click on the image to the right to see more information about the pool situation in San Francisco.
But when the family looked into swimming lessons for Zachary at one of San Francisco’s public pools, they realized that the few available slots would not fit their schedule.
“It was just limited hours,” Willson said, “so my partner taught [Zachary] himself. We are always around the water — safety first.”
Willson is among many parents in San Francisco who have discovered that affordable swimming lessons are scarce. Over the past year, more than 2,000 children and more than 100 adults were on waiting lists for the Recreation and Park Department’s Learn to Swim Program.
As of this month, more than 500 people were still on the list.
Supervisor Jane Kim said she was surprised by those figures, which the department delivered to her early this month after her office inquired.
“We found out there was a very high need,” Kim said.
She said “more pools” was the most common request she hears from children and teens during community meetings.
Kim is behind a deal with the developers of the controversial 8 Washington waterfront condo project to provide access to an on-site pool for children from low-income families. The developer will allow 26 four-week classes with 12 children each, for a total of 312 youths a year. The lessons would be run by Rec and Park.
“It’s an important skill set to have for just basic safety reasons,” Kim said.
At one time, all San Franciscans were required to learn how to swim. A swimming test is still a condition of graduation from the San Francisco Unified School District. But over the years, more and more students have received waivers, and the requirement will end entirely beginning in 2014.
District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said that until then, high school principals would submit waivers for their entire graduating classes on the basis of funding constraints and lack of access to pools.
Jim Wheeler, who manages pools for Rec and Park, said high demand for swimming lessons is nothing new. However, he added, waiting lists have been growing in recent years. Wheeler attributed that to recent improvements in the programs, coupled with the fact that they remain the cheapest option in The City.
“We have high demand,” he said. “Even though we’re not a huge kid city, every parent is well-educated and understands the importance of learning to swim.”
A survey by the National Recreation and Park Association, based near Washington, D.C., found that the typical municipality has one outdoor pool per 34,200 people or one indoor pool per 42,000 people. Oakland has one pool for every 65,000 residents.
But San Francisco’s population of more than 800,000 has access to just eight public pools (a ninth is closed for renovations), or less than one per 100,000 residents.
“We could always use more water,” Wheeler said. “We’d love to have one nice, big competitive pool, Olympic-size. But where that would go, I don’t know.”
The City’s pools also are aging. Several have been renovated in recent years with bond money, and three more are due for an upgrade in the next round of bonds. But for now, the department must annually close pools for maintenance for weeks at a time.
“It’s challenging when the heaters, the pumps are 50 years old,” Wheeler said.
While infrastructure will remain a challenge, Wheeler said the department was working to expand access to swimming lessons by securing grant money that would help pools partner with public schools in low-income neighborhoods to offer after-school swimming lessons.
Kim said supervisors would consider other public-private partnerships in the future, and she said The City should survey people about what they want out of recreation facilities.
More pool access also could help The City in its effort to stop parents from fleeing to the suburbs.
“I can’t imagine that it would hurt in retaining families,” Kim said.
The cost of swimming lessons:
Jewish Community Center: $87.50-$115/month
La Petite Baleen Swim Schools: $83-$203/month*
Rec and Park: $2-$7/lesson or $33 for 10 sessions*