Alarmed by drownings of minority children, Minneapolis officials and community organizations are pressing for better access to swimming lessons for them and the opening of an indoor public pool in the Phillips neighborhood.
The city has never owned an indoor pool, but city, county and state officials have been working for four years to fund and open the Phillips Aquatic Center, located at 11th Avenue S. and E. 24th Street.
Council Member Abdi Warsame said the community was shaken by the recent drowning of 12-year-old Abdullahi Charif during a swimming class at St. Louis Park Middle School. Known as a weak swimmer, he slipped under and drowned.
Warsame said access to lessons that cost little to nothing is important to a community that has one of the lowest incomes in the city.
“We are in a new time, and we have a group of elected officials that believe very strongly in equity, and we will find a way,” he said at Friday’s event at the Phillips Community Center.
The pool, once part of Phillips Junior High, was turned over to the Boys and Girls Club in 1988, when the school was demolished. The pool and community center closed in 2008 after the Boys and Girls Club lease expired. The Park Board reopened parts of the center, but the pool remains empty. Community members have rallied to get the pool reopened.
Minneapolis Swims, which is leading the effort to open the pool, says the city needs to end water-safety disparities in Minneapolis.
Park Board and Minneapolis Swims officials said children of color are at great risk for drowning, often because of the lack of lessons and pools.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman did not press charges in the Charif drowning because no one was found to have committed a crime.
“It was a tragic accident, but our kids have got to learn how to swim,” Freeman said.
Others are joining the cause. State Rep. Karen Clark and state Sen. Jeff Hayden recently introduced legislation that would require all public schools to provide swimming lessons or basic water-safety principles, if the schools are not located near pools.
Denny Bennett, a board member of Minneapolis Swims, said the organization has raised about $2.2 million and needs another $3 million to open the pool by 2016. He said part of that money will go toward scholarships that would provide free lessons.
Now, community members must turn to YMCA or YWCA and Park Board programs for lessons, which are not always affordable, Bennett said. The Park Board also provides basic water-safety lessons at city lakes, but Bennett said that teaches them how to dog-paddle, not swimming skills.
Liz Wielinski, the Park Board’s president, said funding a public indoor pool is a novelty for the board, which has already invested $1.6 million to fix the building. Wielinski said the board will continue to make investments and look for partnerships to help fund operating costs and building renovations.
At the event, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced that the Minneapolis School District would be giving the pool $150,000 a year for the next five years in operating revenue. The district plans to use the pool for several of its swim teams in the neighborhood, including Washburn and South high schools.
“To me this is about access and opportunity for our students,” Johnson said.