ST. CLOUD — Elbow-elbow-knee-knee.
These steps — for hoisting oneself out of a pool — come naturally to those who have taken swim lessons. But many children have no concept of how to pull themselves from a pool or float on their back to rest after treading water.
The lack of access to swimming programs has propelled drowning to the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death nationwide for children ages 1 to 14, following only motor vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the risk of drowning increases for children of color or children with developmental disabilities.
A new partnership between the St. Cloud school district and the YMCA is aiming to change that: Upward of 250 students from Madison and Talahi elementary schools are learning water safety skills this spring as part of a pilot program.
"It's not a swim lesson. It's not stroke development," said Kaitlin Pohland, aquatics director at the St. Cloud Area Family YMCA. "It's the basic and fundamental water safety skills."
Growing up in Iowa, Pohland's parents signed her up for swim lessons, which led the way for competitive swimming in high school, lifeguard jobs in the summer and coaching local youth teams.
"Everybody took swim lessons — we absolutely took it for granted," said 28-year-old Pohland, who now lives in Little Falls, Minn. "But that's not the case. It's not the same in every household."
About 80% of children in families with a household income of less than $50,000 have little or no swimming ability due to limited access to instruction, Pohland said, citing the USA Swimming organization.
The risk of drowning for Black children ages 5-14 is about three times higher than for white children. And children with autism are at a higher risk of drowning, often because they are drawn to water.
Madison Elementary lost one of its own to drowning in July 2015: 6-year-old Hamza Elmi — who was autistic and nonverbal — drowned in the Mississippi River a few blocks from where he was last seen on his scooter the day before.
Another St. Cloud resident died last June while swimming in a quarry in Waite Park. A diver found Zakariya Odowa, 18, in about 25 feet of water.
Mike Rivard, assistant superintendent of elementary education at St. Cloud schools, said the elementary lessons are important because the district doesn't offer swimming as part of physical education classes until high school.
"It's a sweet spot developmentally where children can be in the learning mode instructionally and be around the pool where it's not just play time," Rivard said. "When you're watching the kids, you don't see this fear. You see a respect for the water."
Numerous YMCA sites across the country — including the YMCA in Minneapolis — offer Safety Around Water programs, but they are typically after-school or evening lessons.
Pohland and Rivard, along with school district and YMCA leadership, pushed for the program to become part of the district's curriculum so all children can learn water safety skills. Next year, all second-graders in St. Cloud schools will participate.
The program is free to students, funded through grants and donations from local businesses Gate City Bank and Pilgrim's Pride. Students receive a drawstring bag, goggles and a culturally appropriate swimsuit they can keep.
Some families, particularly Somali families, asked for full-coverage suits with a head covering. And some families asked for swim shirts or shorts so students feel more comfortable.
"We honor it all," Pohland said, noting no families opted out of the program over swimwear concerns.
The first lesson was on dry ground in the school's gymnasium, where students practiced rolling from their stomachs to their backs and had relays to practice snapping on life jackets.
In subsequent lessons at the Y, students were squealing as they entered the warm, toe-deep water. By their second in-pool lesson, the second-graders were experts at putting their faces underwater and giggled as they showed off their new skills to gym teacher Ryan Olson, who watched from the pool deck.
"I don't know if some of them had been in the water before," said Olson, who teaches at Madison Elementary on St. Cloud's North Side.
Being with their classmates and teachers has helped students warm to the water faster than they otherwise might have, Pohland said.
"If we were one on one with them in a swim lesson, they would not be doing everything they're doing," she said. "But they're seeing others do it and they're trusting it and loving it.
"They're screaming when they put their feet in," Pohland added. "But by the end [of the class], they are diving down and getting a ring and we're having a hard time getting them out of the water."