Chicago students get swimming lessons and a chance to learn life-saving skills

About half a dozen second grade students perched on a pool ledge, feet dangling in clear water at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boys and Girls Club on Chicago’s West Side. They giggled as they waited in swimsuits, goggles, and multi-colored swim caps for the next swimming test: flutter kicks.

With the green light from their instructor, the 7- and 8-year-olds unleashed a flurry of kicks. Squeals of joy and sloshing of water echoed inside the spacious natatorium on a mid-February morning.

Over the last year, LEARN Excel Charter in Garfield Park has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club for free, eight-week-long swim lessons for its students. The partnership helps provide enrichment opportunities and teach life-saving skills, Principal Sekou Robertson said.

“A lot of our kids can’t swim,” Robertson said. “They’re afraid of the water. It’s mostly due to access.”

For Robertson, it’s important to create opportunities that go beyond academics.

“Of course we are here for reading, math, speaking, and getting good test scores,” Robertson said. “But we also know at the end of the day life skills that our kids need and swimming is one of them.”

Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for children under 17 in the U.S., with Black children dying of drowning at higher rates than white and Latino children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most drowning deaths among children between 1 and 13 years old occur in swimming pools, and in natural bodies of water such as rivers for young people ages 14 to 17, the CDC found.

In recent years, some legislators across the country and local communities have pushed to make swimming lessons more accessible. 

A LEARN Excel Charter student jumps into a pool at Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club, 2950 W Washington Blvd., Chicago. The Boys and Girls Club partnered with the school to offer free swim lessons for its students. (Mauricio Peña/ Chalkbeat)

Since LEARN Excel Charter started piloting the swimming program in spring 2022, the lessons have been a big hit with students. The school and the Boys and Girls Club partnership has expanded to allow three sessions in the fall, winter, and spring.

On the February morning, second grader Supriti Collins was eager to get back in the pool. It was her third round of swim lessons since the charter school partnered with the Boys and Girls club last spring.

“They teach us paddling,” said the 7-year-old, who wore a bathing suit decorated with palm tree silhouettes and a red swim cap . “I love paddling.”

A push to teach life-saving skills in school

“We’re going to go over some pool rules,” Andrea Lopez, aquatics coordinator, said during the lessons last month. “Can you raise your hand and give me one pool rule?”

All 13 students’ hands shot up, ready to share.

“No running,” one student said.

“Don’t go in the deep end,” said another.

“No diving on the shallow end,” a third added.

LEARN Excel Charter student raise their hands to share pool safety rules at Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club in Garfield Park. (Mauricio Peña/ Chalkbeat)

The instructors take two students at a time to test their skills after running through the full list of pool rules. 

Cynthia Bedolla, aquatics director at the Boys and Girls Club, said the organization has been focused on providing free swim lessons and other water safety and awareness programs for the community, especially with warmer weather around the corner.

The Club aims to provide customizable aquatic programs that fit the needs of the kids, Bedolla said. 

Students are evaluated on the first day and put into two separate groups based on their skillset and lessons, Bedolla said.

They are assessed — two by two — on a few skills including blowing bubbles, floating on their back, and paddling. 

Andrea Lopez, aquatics coordinator, tests two LEARN Excel students at a West Side Boys and Girls Club on whether they can blow bubbles. (Mauricio Peña/ Chalkbeat)

Tia Wilson, the Excel teacher who helps coordinate the swimming program, said the school is committed to giving their students experiences.  

“Our kids don’t necessarily get to do this all the time,” Wilson said. “We look for opportunities where we can allow our kids to have these types of experiences.”

Wilson said these lessons are also a motivator, something students look forward to.

“They love it,” Wilson said. “It builds their confidence. Each time they get better and better.”

In the pool in February, Tyler Nelson hesitated as he leaned back attempting to float. With the help of the instructor, the 8-year-old relaxed and stretched his arm as if lying on a bed. 

He smiled. 

He’s been coming since the first session last spring. His favorite things about the lessons are getting to learn how to swim and chatting with his friends.

He hopes to get better at swimming with this latest round.

His ultimate goal: Master the deep end.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at