The number of school swimming pools in Muskegon County will double when Muskegon Heights Academy reopens its pool this fall.
The six-lane pool - complete with diving board, starting blocks, a 12-foot deep-end and a 3-foot shallow-end - closed in 2012.
Muskegon High School has the only other operating school pool in the county. The result has been a “lack of accessibilty” for children to learn to swim, which is especially critical for a community that is surrounded by water, said Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System Superintendent Rané Garcia.
The pool reopening comes during a year of record and near-record water levels in the Great Lakes, and when drownings in Lake Michigan stand at 29 - a 53 percent increase over 2018.
African American children ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Much of the disparity can be attributed to a lack of access to swimming pools, according to the CDC. Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning, especially among children ages 1 to 4, according to the CDC.
During 2018-19, about 94 percent of students in the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System were African American, according to MI School Data.
Opening the Muskegon Heights pool “enhances equity, access, health and wellness” while turning an unused resource into a community asset, Garcia said.
Many children in Muskegon County don’t learn to swim because of the limited access to pools, Garcia said. However, some learn through programs with the Muskegon YMCA and Boys and Girls Club of the Muskegon Lakeshore.
Public pools in Muskegon County are at the Muskegon Community College Lakeshore Fitness Center in Muskegon and Norton Pines Athletic Club in Norton Shores.
The pool at Fruitport Middle School is closed because it needs about $1-2 million in repairs, said Fruitport Community Schools Superintendent Bob Szymoniak. The pool could be repaired with excess bond funds after the expected 2021 completion of the $48 million Fruitport High School. A decision on reopening the middle school pool is expected in summer 2021.
A millage that would have funded the construction and operation of a pool and aquatic center in Whitehall failed in 2017.
When the Muskegon Heights pool opens, students, staff and the community will benefit, Garcia said.
Students will have access to free swimming lessons and staff will be able to use the pool for lap swimming. The community will have access to water aerobics, parent and child classes, and open swim. The school district also plans to collaborate with the Muskegon YMCA and other organizations to open the pool to even more people.
Work to get the pool up and running is ongoing, Garcia said. Since it had been dry for seven years, all systems required a tune up. The estimated cost is $60,000. The filtration system motors that were rusted and stuck were refurbished, the boiler that heats the pool may need work and the locker rooms “need some TLC.”
Yearly operations are expected to cost around $80,000, which includes an aquatics director, swimming teachers, lifeguards, pool chemicals, maintenance and related utilities.
A fund has been set up at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County with a goal of raising $300,000 – donations are being accepted now. Rental and use fees accrued once the pool opens will also go into the fund.
The Muskegon Public Schools maintenance department, Muskegon Social Justice Commission, Muskegon Heights Optimist Club and the Muskegon YMCA all are involved in the pool effort.
“The Muskegon Heights community is working diligently to provide access and opportunity in all aspects of education for our children,” Garcia said. “The community is coming together to support each other for the greater good. As a school system, we are proud to be a part of this work and renewed energy with the city, district, parents and alumni.”
Muskegon Heights Public Schools was under emergency management from 2012-16. The pool closed when the emergency manager took over.
Muskegon Heights Public Schools and the academy remain under the supervision of a Receivership Transitional Advisory Board appointed by the Michigan Department of Treasury.
The RTAB was established after the district was taken out of emergency management in October 2016.
The district was assigned an emergency manager when it was $12 million in debt. The emergency manager established the charter academy district to educate students while Muskegon Heights Public Schools worked to pay off debts, using non-per pupil funding such as local millages.