When I think back to my elementary school days, I recall how eagerly I waited for the final school bell to ring. I couldn’t wait to get outside and play with friends.
By the time that I got to high school, my hours before and after school were spent in the pool, training hard for weekend competitions, and then state championships, and so on. It was hard work, a healthy and fun way to expel teenage energy and frustrations, making it easier for me to focus on academics in class, while giving me something to look forward to after school.
My love for sport is why I’m working diligently to ensure all students in Santa Barbara County who want access to aquatics programming, have it. As part of the Santa Ynez Valley Community Aquatics Foundation, I’m working in partnership with the Chumash Tribe, to create a Healthy Cities Initiative Health & Wellness Program to create an on-site, state-of-the-art Sports Science Institute, which will include a new swimming pool, replacing the local pool built in 1965. The project is supported by the cities of Buellton and Solvang, the Santa Ynez Valley High School, and the Chumash Tribe. The pool will be on the Santa Ynez Valley High School campus and will operate under a “joint use” agreement, which will allow community access to the school property and sports facilities.
A partnership between the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) also offers school-aged students access to swim lessons via the Swim to College program. Every year, all 3rd graders enrolled in the district’s state-funded after-school program receive eight free swim lessons from student athletes at UCSB. The kids receive free swimsuits, goggles, and swim caps, and they are taught how to tread water, float on their back, and swim 25 yards. On the ninth and final day, they tour the UCSB campus and get to experience campus life.
Both programs help promote water safety, health, and wellness for life. Many participating students come from families who can’t afford swim lessons, which provides a life-saving skill when you live in a coastal community like ours. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of unintentional injury death among children under 14.
Keeping kids moving after school will also go a long way toward preventing obesity and type 2 diabetes. In California and across the U.S., over one-third of children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese. According to the latest FITNESSGRAM physical fitness tests in California, only 26.4 percent of fifth graders and 32.5 percent of seventh graders scored in the Healthy Fitness Zone for all measurements that help define a level of fitness that offers protection against diseases resulting from sedentary living.
To do away with our culture of inactivity and promote a culture of health, we need to encourage children to make physical activities a part of their regular routine, just like washing their hands and brushing their teeth. We need more programs like Swim to College to provide safe spaces for kids to exercise and play in the hours after school.
The State of California has an opportunity to help. In 2002, Californians voters made a commitment to after-school programs by approving Proposition 49, which supports over 4,000 programs statewide and 400,000 elementary and middle-school students each day — including 43 programs serving over 3,300 students daily here in Santa Barbara County — through the After School Education and Safety (ASES) program. Unfortunately, ASES funding has remained static for a decade, despite several increases in the minimum wage and a 19 percent increase in the cost of living. As a result, many programs have been forced to cut back on their after-school activities or they risk being forced eventually to close altogether.
Raising the daily funding rate for ASES by one dollar — from $7.50 to $8.50 per student — would help offset costs associated with the minimum wage and the overall cost of living. Funding at this level would require an increase of $73 million the FY 2016-17 state budget.
After-school programs are win-win for parents, their children, our health-care system, and society as a whole. They offer working parents essential child care, which alleviates stress and maintains productivity in the workplace. Programs keep kids supervised, safe, and engaged in meaningful academic activities while promoting avenues for STEM [science, technology, engineering, math)]education, career exploration, health and wellness, physical activity, and sport. High-quality after-school programs have been linked to improved student attendance, behavior and academic performance in school as well.
Increasing funding levels for ASES should be a top priority. Shorting kids the opportunity to be physically active, healthy and happy is woefully short-sighted. I hope the governor and the State Legislature will agree.
Gary Hall, Jr. is an American swimmer who represented the United States in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics and won 10 Olympic medals (five gold, three silver, two bronze). He currently resides in Santa Barbara County.