Forest Grove residents lobby for programs reinstatement in wake of Hagg Lake near-drownings

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Greg Rooker, parent of five children who are all strong swimmers, has asked the Forest Grove School Board to consider reviving a long-defunct swim lessons program in town.  Less than a month after eight children almost drowned in Hagg Lake, a call has gone out to revive a swim lessons program in the Forest Grove School District.

But the prospects for reinvigorating the program — which provided swimming instruction to about 3,500 youngsters annually for 20 years — depend on two things: money and people to manage it.

Count Greg Rooker, Sue Fleskes and Tom Gamble in.

Gamble, director of the city parks and recreation department, said last week that "pretty much every kid in the school district got swim lessons" at the Forest Grove Aquatic Center on Sunset Drive between the late 1970s and the late 1990s.

Students in second, third and seventh grades were bused from their schools to the aquatic center for two weeks of instruction that "enhanced their ability to not be afraid" in the water, said Gamble, who swam competitively through college. But when revenue started drying up after voters passed the property tax-limiting Ballot Measure 5 in 1990, Forest Grove school administrators started looking for places to cut the budget.

Statewide testing started ramping up about that time as well, Gamble noted, and district officials decided to drop the seventh-grade classes from the swim program. "Teachers didn't want students to have as much time away from class," he PHOTO COURTESY KEN BILDERBACK - As the waters of Hagg Lake have receded, the site of a dramatic September rescue where eight children nearly drowned, is now visible. A steep ledge is usually hidden by water during the peak recreation months.

The third-grade classes were cut next. Finally, eight or nine years ago, the second-grade lessons came to a halt, too. "We fought pretty hard for the program at school board meetings," Gamble said, but in the end, they went by the wayside.

For him, bringing back the lessons, even in a down economy, is a no-brainer. "Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children between age 2 and 12," he said, "a number that's preventable, in my view."

With "lakes, streams and oceans" within an hour's drive and beckoning young people especially, Gamble said, "kids not knowing how to swim is not a choice we want to make as a community."

Though he holds parents responsible for making sure their children learn to swim, Gamble isn't naïve about the percentage of those who, for whatever reason, don't.

"The fact is, the community didn't put resources toward this facility without wanting kids to come here to get the skills to be water safe," he said.

Diploma requirement

The current push for school-based lessons comes from Rooker, a longtime Forest Grove resident and the father of five children between the ages of 16 and 22 — all of them swimmers, some of them championship caliber.

"There's an at-risk group of kids in the Forest Grove and Cornelius area," Rooker told school board members last month, urging them to "reevaluate the decision to drop the (swim lessons) program."

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, he said, six out of 10 Hispanic children in America cannot swim. Since about half the district's students are Latino, that presents a problem, Rooker added.

But across all demographics, participation in formal swim lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to the foundation. "I propose we give our children a chance to make it to college," Rooker told the board.

His words were echoed Sunday by Forest Grove High School cross country coach Sue Fleskes, one of several people who taught area kids to swim in the 1980s.

"My posture is that every kid should pass a swimming test before they get a diploma," said Fleskes, who retired from teaching several years back but continues to bring athletes to the pool for post-race water therapy. "I would like to see it as a graduation requirement."

The aquatic center still hosts the Forest Grove Swim Club, a USA Swimming program for Forest Grove, Banks, Gaston and North Plains youth. But the high school swim team's numbers have diminished dramatically in recent years.

Fleskes said the team, which is now technically a club, had about 70 members in 2009, but now its roster counts fewer than 20. All of that points to fewer kids getting into the water before they reach ninth grade, she noted.

"I've got several (athletes) who don't swim, even now," Fleskes said. "But they go out to the rivers and the lakes, and it's scary.

"Certainly the school district can't be responsible for all of it, but there are certain baseline things our educational system should offer, and swimming is one of them."

Even though Fleskes's schedule won't allow her to resume teaching swim lessons, she said she'd be happy to cheerlead a renewal of the program.

"As far as vocal support, I'd certainly want to offer that," she said.

'Fear factor thing'

The school board leadership team talked about Rooker's proposal Oct. 1 and determined it "will have to go through the district budget planning cycle for next year," said chairwoman Alisa Hampton.

Annual budget talks begin after the new year and start at the central office administration level so proposals can "be effectively weighed against other district priorities for resource allocation," she noted.

But even as the district mulls its programmatic options, community members such as Rooker see the argument for safety reflected in kids' faces every day.

"When they were young, my kids were always hanging all over me when we went to the pool," said Rooker, who, along with his wife Vangie, has spent hundreds of hours in the bleachers during local swim meets. "For me, having all my kids learn to swim was mandatory. It was a fear factor thing."

What else to cut

At Hagg Lake last month, it took a dramatic rescue by members of a Hillsboro family to save multiple kids — and two adults — who were floundering in the water after slipping off a muddy ledge near the Sain Creek picnic area.

For Rooker, the averted tragedy sounded an alarm. Without school- or city-sponsored swim lessons, he contends, "we're kind of ripe for this kind of accident again."

Jerry Fitzpatrick, who was vice principal at FGHS until he retired in 2008, confirmed Monday that the program's removal was "entirely due" to budget constraints.

While he believes "young people should know how to swim for safety reasons," Fitzpatrick said he understood how district leaders might have trouble making the math work if they leaned toward reinstatement.

"If you bring a program like that back, what else are you going to cut?" he said.

Business Manager Mike Schofield said this week the district paid for transportation and staffing costs related to the program while it existed.

Today, with the district slicing millions from its operating budget each year, those dollars are increasingly scarce. Still, a ripple of awareness about the significance of swim lessons has started to make its way to households in Cornelius and Forest Grove.

It's reaching city offices as well. "People should know the pool will always be here if the school district wants to reinstate the program," said Gamble.

Meanwhile, he noted, the aquatic center offers "10 lessons for $46, a bargain in my book."

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