Foundation seeks to teach youngsters how to swim

Free program launches on Maui at Pukalani Elementary School

Malcolm Cooper speaks to swimmers Saturday during a youth meet at Kihei Aquatics Center. The Hawaii Aquatics Foundation has launched the Keiki Water Safety Initiative, a pilot program teaching 2nd-graders how to swim at no cost to schools or students. Cooper runs the foundation’s Maui program and began teaching students at Pukalani Elementary School last month. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Longtime Maui swim coach Malcolm Cooper recalls rescuing five to 10 people from drowning over the years after their leash broke and they could not reach their board because they did not know how to swim.

“I went out windsurfing in Kanaha and this guy was 5 yards from his board and he couldn’t get to it,” the Pukalani resident said Sunday. “I said, ‘Here take mine’ and I swam to his board to get it back for him.”

Encountering residents — even surfers — who are unable to swim is not unusual for Cooper, despite living on an island surrounded by water. That is why he and several others have launched a statewide initiative to teach the next generation of residents the basics of swimming.

“The idea is that everyone in the state should have some water safety knowledge and learn how to swim,” he said.

The Hawaii Aquatics Foundation launched the Keiki Water Safety Initiative, a pilot program teaching 2nd-graders how to swim at no cost to schools or students, over the summer on Oahu. Cooper runs the foundation’s Maui program and began teaching students at Pukalani Elementary School last month.

“It’s still in the proposal stage to the state to become a resource available to them,” Cooper said. “We contacted principals at 90 percent of the schools on Maui and Molokai to find out if they had something and most schools did not.

“Everyone is interested in doing it.”

One-third of Hawaii’s youths do not know how to swim, according to the foundation. It further estimated that half of Hawaii’s youths have not been taught swimming skills in a formal setting, and even fewer have been taught situational water survival skills.

Less than 10 percent of public and public charter schools statewide, as well as less than 20 percent of private schools, give swim instruction during physical education classes, the foundation said. The state Department of Education has no requirement or funding for swim programs.

Pukalani Elementary is Maui’s first school utilizing the program, with about 40 students split between two classes, Cooper said. He said classes try to meet twice a week for 10 lessons: two in classrooms and eight in the pool.

Teachers seek to develop knowledge, self-dependence and self-confidence in the water. Skill training includes breathing, surface recovery, floating, treading, underwater swims, directional swimming, energy conservation and endurance.

“Our goal, at the very least, is if they fall in the water somewhere, they can make it 5 yards to the end of the pool or float until they are saved,” Cooper said.

Five swim instructors and a dedicated lifeguard are with students during every class, Cooper said. The foundation estimates that instructor, support staff and insurance costs total about $100 per student.

Mentally or physically impaired students cost about $400 each and annual costs statewide are estimated at $1.5 million.

Cooper said that the Pukalani school was an ideal starting point due to its existing swim program and its close proximity to the county’s public Upcountry Pool in Pukalani. The school is one of the few in the county with a swim program, despite its small size.

“It’s great, they just walk to the pool about three minutes away,” Cooper said.

The most difficult aspect of the program has been finding pools close enough to the schools, Cooper said. He said that the majority are too far and it would be too costly to bus students.

Organizers, however, are developing a way to bring the water to students by designing inexpensive portable pools that can be setup and taken down in a day, Cooper said. He said that the foundation worked with civil engineers to come up with a design similar to ones popular in San Diego to provide a pool of about 15 feet by 30 feet.

The portable pools would stay at a campus for five to six weeks and require just two people to install. He hopes the pools will be ready to use in about a year.

Cooper said that the program targets 2nd-graders, or 7- to 8-year-olds, based on worldwide swimming trends and surveys. He said Australia also keys in on that grade level.

“It’s a good time to get kids learning,” he said. “You get much younger and they’re not going to recall as much. When you get much older you’re already putting them more at risk.”

Cooper, who coached swimming in Los Angeles for 20 years before moving to the island, said that he was shocked by the number of residents who do not know how to properly swim. He said many parents are afraid of the water themselves, so they may not seek lessons for their child.

Nonfatal drownings can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory loss, learning disabilities and basic brain functioning, according to the foundation. An average of 235 nonfatal drowning victims are taken to emergency rooms across the state each year.

Of those, 70 are children under the age of 17, with 40 percent between 1 and 4 years old, the foundation reported.

“The idea is this might be the only class they ever get,” Cooper said. “If we can teach them the basics, then they can get out of dangerous situations.

“Kids are going to get in the water and do what other kids are doing. If they don’t get instruction, what’s going to happen?”

The foundation is targeting 1,000 2nd-grade students on four islands by the spring and 100 percent elementary school participation statewide in three years.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at