- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Lawhon second-grade students hung out on the side of the pool on Sept. 10 at the Tupelo Aquatic Center, eager to swim and continue learning about water safety as part of the Little Ripples program.

Little Ripples, a program in conjunction with the City of Tupelo’s Parks and Recreation Department, gives all Tupelo schools first- and second-grade students the opportunity to participate in free swimming and water safety lessons.

Each group of second-grade students attends for one week at the beginning of the school year. First-grade students attend in the spring.

Director of the program Amy Kennedy said when the program started in 2009, nearly 80 percent of students participated. This year, Kennedy said the participation rate is close to 100 percent.

Kennedy said many students do not know how to swim or are uncomfortable in the water when they start the program. However, the swimming abilities among students range from beginners to strong swimmers.

“For some of the first-graders, this is their first time in the pool, but some are comfortable,” Kennedy said. “We see a majority of them do not know how to swim, so we’re just teaching them the basics that first week.”

Jane Clair Shettles, a physical education teacher at Lawhon and certified swim instructor, helped teach the Little Ripples group recently.

Shettles said she loves the children’s excitement about getting in the water. Not only are the students eager to learn, Shettles said she has seen them overcome their fears about swimming in just the few days they come to the aquatic center.

“It’s a lot of fun working with them, of course,” Shettles said. “It’s so neat to see them get comfortable with the water, especially some of the non-swimmers who are terrified.”

Tom Murry, swim instructor at the aquatic center, also works with the Little Ripples groups.

Murry said the best thing about the program, for him, is watching the students make progress.

“What I like to do is see them develop aquatic skills,” Murry said. “They want to do it, and they want to do it well. They’re motivated.”

Murry added teaching the students the basics is particularly important so they can build on those skills in the future.

“Until they get comfortable, it’s hard for them to develop their stroke,” Murry said.

Children need to be taught how to save themselves in the event of an accident, Kennedy said, noting children may find themselves on vacation, at a lake, park, pool or friend’s house where they could fall into water.

“We teach them not only skills, but water safety,” Kennedy said. “We just want them to be safe in and around water.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five people who die from drowning are children ages 14 and younger.

Kennedy said the program benefits the aquatic center and community by producing smart, safe swimmers and working toward drowning prevention.

Little Ripples also was a focus of the Tupelo All-America City team’s presentation at the 2015 awards in Denver, Colorado, where the program garnered much positive feedback.

“I think it’s a great partnership, and I encourage all cities and school systems to partner up to teach their children to swim,” Kennedy said.

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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