History of Broward County's
Swim Central Program
Swim lessons dive into school: Broward County Swim Central program becomes a model drowning prevention program
By Bob Harbin
Once a destination for vacationers and retirees, South Florida has developed into a year-round residence for thousands of young families. Along with the change in demographics have come new concerns affecting children who grow up in the Sunshine State surrounded by swimming pools and waterways.
In South Florida, drowning is the number one killer of children under the age of 5. From 1998 to 2000, there were a total of 34 drowning deaths of this demographic in Broward County, according to the county's medical examiner. Not surprising when you consider that there are 23 miles of beach frontage and 126 navigable miles of canals located within the one county.
The need for a drowning prevention program became clear when the average number of drowning deaths of children under 5 grew to an average of 10 deaths a year. Near-drowning accidents took its toll as well, with three out of four children suffering brain damage.
One of the first advocates to speak up about the problem was Miami Herald investigative reporter Ron Ishoy. In 1997, he called Sam Freas, who was then the director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and asked him what was being done about drowning prevention. The call set off a chain reaction that rallied local leaders from various public and private entities. One such person was Diana Wasserman-Rubin, at the time a school board member, who had been instrumental in bringing the American Red Cross Whale Tales program to the county schools. The program taught children about water safety and had been part of the curriculum for at least 10 years.
At the end of 1997, a small ad-hoc committee met for the first time to address the magnitude of the problem. At the second meeting, representatives from all of the county agencies were invited to participate. Kim Burgess, then the assistant director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, attended the third meeting. "Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman assumed leadership of the committee and over the course of a year, we met every month to formulate a plan," recalls Burgess. "The most important discovery we made was that no one knew where to take their children for swim lessons."
"When we first started discussing the challenges of teaching every pre-first-grade child in Broward County to swim, it was a very complicated challenge, in so much as the transportation cost exceeded the instructional cost," says Mike Harlan, assistant director, Broward County Parks and Recreation. "We had to formulate a plan to eliminate the transportation cost and provide additional pools that were in walking distance to elementary schools."
The consensus of the committee was to begin by developing a resource and referral strategy to provide parent education and raise community awareness --and to seek funding.
Another key question was: Who would house the program? Here, politics became an issue. If the program was to be at the county level, how would it appear if it was administered by the Red Cross or some other organization? "It would appear to be a Red Cross program," says Burgess. "We decided that it should be housed under a neutral umbrella." The logical non-competitive choice seemed to be the Broward County Parks and Recreation Division.
Swim Central Established
Community outreach began with a concerted resource and referral initiative, including TV commercials, brochures and flyers, which were distributed in parks and libraries. The drowning prevention message really hit a nerve, as phone calls started to pour in on the special hotline that Miami Herald's Ishoy had arranged.
Swim Central was formally established in 1999 as a joint effort between the Broward County government, Florida Legislature and the School Board of Broward County. In April 1999, Burgess was named director of the program. Her background in sports marketing management with the International Swimming Hall of Fame made her highly qualified for the position. Initial funding was only $82,000, allocated by the county commission to hire three people. The message was "sink or swim."
Burgess recalls, "State Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz obtained $200,000 from the state by way of the Broward County school board, which automatically put Swim Central in partnership with the School Board." Burgess saw an opportunity and asked, "Why don't we target kindergarteners?"
Though Franklin Till, Jr., superintendent of schools, was an advocate of drowning prevention, the school board did not mandate the program. Rather, it left participation to the discretion of each school. To sell the concept, Burgess and her staff started knocking on principals' doors and targeting schools within walking distance to a pool. They also targeted schools that offered reduced or free lunches, knowing that the need there was great. Burgess also appealed to the city commissions to keep pools open year-round. "The first year, we enlisted 24 schools into the program year round," recalls Burgess.
The outreach program was really beginning to produce results. All of the cities in Broward County were inundated by calls about their fee-based swimming programs. "During the summer of 1999, something incredible happened that had never happened before," says Burgess. "All of the aquatic programs in every municipality from Hollywood to Fort Lauderdale to Miramar to Pembroke Pines to Coral Springs were filled to capacity. Every session in every city had full attendance."
Leaders from every city began to show up at the committee's monthly meetings and cooperate with each other. "It became a cause celebre. Everyone bought into the program because for the first time, all of the swim programs were operating at full capacity and generating revenue," notes Burgess. "Swim Central had become a marketing tool for local swim programs."
From November 1999 to September 2000, $382,000 in funding came from Children's Services Board, a county agency, to be targeted to 4- and 5-year-olds. Funding from grants for 3,000 children came under the Swim Central title and was administered by the YMCA. The funds that came from the school board were allocated for recruitment, training and certification of swimming instructors.
The original ad-hoc committee, Safe Water Instruction Means Safety Foundation, took on the role of fundraising and established status as a 501c3. Its mission is to teach water safety to every child in Broward County to ultimately eliminate the tragic loss of children through drowning. Barry Shaw was named president of the foundation.
Essentially, Swim Central has become Broward County's coordinating agency for water safety instruction and awareness for children and adults. It maintains a comprehensive database that tracks every swimming pool and program in the county, and directs parents to nearby places where kids learn to navigate the water and bob for air. "We want to keep resident children at resident pools," notes Burgess. Since 1999, 82,000 children have completed the Swim Central program and nearly 800,000 lessons have been given.
When a new school signs up, a coordinator calls to schedule lessons. Swim Central identifies a local pool, which might be a municipal park and recreation swimming facility, a YMCA or another school. Five years into the program, there are 112 participating elementary schools. By 2002, there were 50 percent less drownings among the 5-and under-age group. In 2003, there were 17 drowning deaths. Interestingly, 15 of those deaths occurred in the under 3 category. Only two of the deaths were among the original 4- to 5-year-old target group. "When we saw these statistics, we were struck by the realization that we had to reach 2- and 3-year-olds. But how?" recalls Burgess.
Reaching Day Care Children
Shawn LaMarche, head of the Broward County Child Care Licensing Bureau, had been a part of the committee from the beginning. All day care centers in Broward County go through the bureau to be licensed. Of the 100,000-plus preschool age children in Broward County, about 85 to 90 percent are enrolled in day care programs.
By July 2004, Swim Central had found a way to reach children in day care. The licensing bureau mandated that questionnaires be sent to all parents of day care children, which are completed and returned. "We then send information to parents about fee-based swimming programs," says Burgess.
Today, Swim Central is no longer a grant entity. It is fully funded by Broward County, the School Board, and Children's Services Council--an independent special taxing district. Swim Central maintains the largest database of swimming pools and swimming programs in Florida.
Swim Central provides 10, 30-minute classes over a two-week period for children to learn valuable water safety and swimming skills--at no cost to the parent. The curriculum-based program is taught by certified water safety instructors that have been selected and carefully trained through Swim Central. Cities get reimbursed for use of their pools and staff, resulting in revenue-generating swim programs.
The success of Swim Central, housed at Broward County Parks and Recreation, has gained attention nationwide. It is the only program of its type in the country, which has heightened parent and community awareness and acted as a conduit of water safety programs--benefiting thousands of children. In 2005, only one child in Swim Central's original target of 4- and 5-year-olds has drowned. The program now has a budget of more than $1 million.
In addition, the county's 2000 Safe Parks and Land Preservation Bond is providing up to $19.3 million for new and improved aquatic facilities within the county. This will eventually bring 17 new pools online with major renovations and other improvements to an additional six pools.
The Broward County Commission's Swim Central has become a model for other cities to emulate. Burgess is frequently invited to speak to other state and city administrators who seek advice on starting their own drowning prevention program. "The county commission believes that by reaching parents and by removing the competitive edge among local municipalities, we were able to get everyone to work together," says Burgess. "Our common goal to teach children to stay sale in the water continues to be accomplished."
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