Peninsula Family YMCA swim classes make a big splash for Correia students in Point Loma/Ocean Beach

A partnership between the Peninsula Family YMCA and Correia Middle School is giving eighth-graders a chance to learn life-saving skills in the water — something a quarter of them have never experienced.

“You would assume every kid could swim in this coastal community, but that’s not the case,” points out Peninsula Family YMCA executive director Vince Glorioso. “About 25 percent of these kids cannot swim. They’re not comfortable even floating in the water.”

Combine that with the fact drowning is a leading cause of death in children under age 18, and you start to see these classes are more than just a fun splash in the pool. They could be potentially life-saving.

The program incorporates six, 30-minute classes for every eighth-grader. The Y provides certified swim instructors, lifeguards and blocked-out time during physical education classes. Since the middle school is right beside the YMCA, students change into their bathing suits in their own locker room and walk over with their towels.

The program is partially paid for by the San Diego Unified School District. The rest of the funding is raised through the efforts of the Y.

Participating students are grouped into three categories — beginning, intermediate or advanced — and taught accordingly.

“Throughout the classes, we see beginners gain more confidence in the water as they learn the basic skills,” noted phys-ed teacher Jill Kinser. “Even if they were to fall into a pool, these kids would know how to float or swim to the edge — they would know what to do even if they fell off a boat.”

For the intermediate and advanced students, she explained: “We practice all the Olympic strokes and they really get those down. And, hopefully, this experience opens their eyes so that by the end of the classes, they think ‘This is a good workout, this is fun. Maybe I’ll incorporate swimming into my life,’ or ‘I want to try out for the swim team.’ ”

In fact, more kids are joining the swim team and water polo program at Point Loma High School than ever before, she noted.

Student Kat Kagan said she knew how to swim before her classes, but she’s definitely improved through this program. “It’s super fun and it helps a lot of people learn how to swim better and know what to do in water-related situations.”

Student Rylie Rygiel says she was a pretty good swimmer before, but the classes have improved her kicking. “This a great program for school. I thought changing (clothes) would be a hassle, but it’s really easy. Everyone is accepting of whatever you wear or how you are.”

There’s a lot more happening in the water than just learning aquatic skills. The program also gives some kids an opportunity they wouldn’t have on solid ground.

“For the kids who are good at activities on land — like they’re fast runners or sports players — that’s great,” Kinser said. “But in the water, kids are on a different playing field, so some of our larger kids — who you wouldn’t necessarily have thought were athletic — shine in the water. They’re able to show their skills and abilities here.”

Teachers also use the classes to talk about body image.

Kinser explained: “Students have to take a risk here, because they’re not always in bathing suits in front of other people. We’ve found it really teaches them empathy and how to act appropriately with each other and understand different body types.

“Learning to be comfortable with who you are and your body type — while being around all your classmates — that can really be a stressful thing. However, we try to provide a safe environment. The students are not allowed to talk about anyone’s appearance, swimming ability or bathing suit.”

And there are additional benefits, like adopting healthy habits.

“These kids learn that in the middle of my day, I can get wet, brush my hair real fast, change my clothes and go back to work or school. Hopefully, then as young adults, they’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I can work out on my lunch break.’ ”

This year, the program expanded to allow students with special needs, like Down syndrome or autism, to have individualized lessons in the water. Since it started five years ago, more than 2,000 students have learned to swim.

Now that’s making waves!

— Correia Middle School is at 4302 Valeta St. The Peninsula Family YMCA is at 4390 Valeta St., San Diego. The Y has been serving the community since 1970. (619) 226-8888.