As Scott Warsaw, an English and history teacher at Muskegon Heights Academy, steps onto the diving board Tuesday evening, he raises his arms in victory—and the students that have packed the bleachers erupt into cheers.
Warsaw jumps into the pool and, as he emerges from the water, the students’ joyful shouts grow louder—and for good reason. This is the first time anyone has gone swimming in the Muskegon Heights Academy pool since Muskegon Heights Public Schools’ former emergency manager closed it in 2012 because the district could no longer afford to operate it.
“The pool has sat empty for seven and a half years,” Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System Superintendent Rané Garcia says Tuesday, when school officials, legislators, civic leaders, students, and others gathered to celebrate the swimming facility’s debut. “It became like a collect-all corner of a basement. When I arrived in 2016, I could look in and see desks and swimming noodles and no water.”
The more she thought about the empty pool, the more inspired she became to ensure it opened again, Garcia says. After all, this was, the superintendent explains, about saving lives, equity, addressing the racism and discrimination that have led to black children drowning at a far higher rate than their white peers across the United States, and the community’s commitment to its school district.
“I came here from Jenison, where I was for 20 years, and I would leave here to go pick my son up from an Olympic-sized pool in Jenison,” Garcia says. “There’s no reason my son should get the opportunity to swim when the kids in 49444 don’t. There are phenomenal inequities in that.”
“This is only the second school pool in Muskegon County—there are 40,000 school-aged kids, and this is only the second pool,” Garcia continues, referring to the pools at Muskegon Heights Academy and Muskegon High School. “The drowning rates are astronomical: African-American kids drown at a rate of 5.5 times that of white children. This goes back to segregation and exemplifies the injustice that has happened. Being able to reopen this pool really highlights the message that Muskegon Heights schools are not going anywhere; we’re here to serve our community.”
Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children between the ages of one and 14, and the fatal drowning rate for black children is significantly higher than white children, with the exact rate ranging from about three times higher to 10 times higher, depending on the age. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning rates in swimming pools among black children aged 5 to 19 years old are 5.5 times higher than white children of the same age. For black children between the ages of 11 and 12 years old, the drowning rate in swimming pools was 10 times higher than their white peers.
These higher rates of drowning are rooted in institutional racism, the national YMCA notes.
“A painful legacy of racial segregation and violent strife surrounds the history of municipal swimming pools,” the YMCA writes on its website. “This legacy helped to erect high barriers to swimming participation that remain in place today.”
Across the country, it was not that long ago that public beaches and pools in the U.S. displayed “whites only” signs and Jim Crow laws made it impossible—and dangerous—for people of color to access pools. Black individuals faced physical violence if they tried to enter swimming facilities.
Muskegon Heights City Manager Troy Bell emphasizes that this segregation has led to a deep fear of swimming spaces for African-Americans.
“The only opportunity for our kids to learn how to swim was to have access to our own beaches and pools—not because we wanted it that way, but that was what was left to us,” Bell says at the reopening celebration. “This new pool is a tremendous opportunity to bring the school and the community together.”
Bell notes that the city of Muskegon Heights government hopes to fund a Parks and Recreation director position that would significantly expand residents’ access to a variety of recreational facilities and programming, including at the new pool, at Mona Lake, and elsewhere. Currently, the city is spearheading efforts to raise a three-year endowment of about $200,000 to launch the Parks and Recreation position.
To reopen the pool—which was built during a school renovation in 2003—the Muskegon Heights district used $60,000 from its general fund, the superintendent says. Currently, it hopes to raise at least $100,000 over the next year to keep it up and running, Garcia says. It will cost about $80,000 to operate the pool each year. The district aims to open a fund through the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in order to continue to raise money for the facility.
All Muskegon Heights students will have free access to the pool beginning in January through gym classes and other initiatives. The general public will also be able to use the pool through classes, open swim time, and more, says Jeannette Bytwerk, the aquatics director for the Muskegon YMCA and the school district. The Muskegon YMCA will also run its “Safety Around Water” program at the pool, which provides students from throughout Muskegon County instruction on basic swimming skills to escaping rip currents, boater safety and more.
“It will be a lot of fun to bring in new programs and ideas; there will be a lot of family fun times,” Bytwerk says.
Student Daniah Williams, who is 12 years old and has never been in a pool before, says she’s thrilled the swimming facility has reopened.
“I’m excited because I need to learn how to swim so I can help myself if I’m in a bad situation or help someone else if they’re in a bad situation,” she says. “If I learn how to swim, I can teach my cousins.”
Dayvion Longmire, a 12-year-old student in Muskegon Heights, emphasizes the vital role the pool will play in the community.
“Some people have never swam before, and now we get to learn how to swim,” he says. “It’s important people learn how to swim.”
Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System’s Board President Garland Kilgore echoes the students’ praise, saying the facility will “calm a lot of the community’s fear of being around the water.”
“Once you learn how to swim, you can swim anywhere: the pool, Mona Lake, Muskegon Lake, Duck Lake,” he says. “I’m hoping we can change the drowning rate in Muskegon County significantly. We’re doing big things in Muskegon Heights.”
It’s that idea—one of doing big things in Muskegon Heights—that current Muskegon Heights Mayor Kim Sims and incoming Muskegon Heights Mayor Walter Watt also emphasizes.
“This is a huge deal for the community; I don’t know if we understand just how big of a deal it really is,” Sims says. “This is a long time coming. It’s going to be a huge benefit to the students of our district, but also to the community members. I’m hoping the community embraces it. This is something we invested into as a community, and we need to support it as a community.”
Watt, a 1981 graduate of the Muskegon Heights public schools, notes that he’ll be one of the community members accessing the pool.
“I still don’t know how to swim; I’ll be in here,” Watt says. “You’ll get more African-Americans involved in swimming and learning to swim here. It’s just one of two school pool facilities in the area—there’s an underserved community that needs to use it. Here in Muskegon Heights, we’re providing that access.”