MPS won't let kids learn to swim

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This is not an article about deep-fried school lunches or high school drive-by shootings. It’s about field trips. You know, the trip to the museum and to the zoo. Maybe a pumpkin farm. Fun, educational, and an experience that all students deserve. Helena even went to Milwaukee’s Survive Alive House this year, which went a step beyond educational. Honestly, I can see why Milwaukee Public Schools pulled the plug on our Great America trip back in high school, even if there would have been a physics component. However, when I found out that our kids would NOT be allowed to attend a field trip that combines education, fun, life experience, AND safety, I was taken aback.

[Edit: I found out later that the field trip was cancelled due to a paperwork error, so this article can be taken as a reminder that schools should not cut field trips like the one mentioned and should be sure to follow all rules in creating such experiences in a large school district that is hopeless in making adjustments quickly.]

My kids have taken swim classes with mixed results from Milwaukee Recreation. Generally, I’d say about half the instructors are proficient and only a few of the lifeguards at the pools seem to care about what’s going on. That’s OK, since I go along to the classes. As a former lifeguard, I pay attention and make sure all of the kids in the water are safe. The point is for the kids to learn how to swim in a controlled environment before they show up at a party or a lake with no training. I hope my kids know enough from what I have taught them and from what they’ve learned in class, but MGIS had arranged for its second grade classes to get three sessions of lessons at the YMCA. Not enough to create Olympic swimmers, but maybe enough to prevent disaster.

The problem is that many MPS students do not learn how to swim, and they also don’t learn basic pool or lake safety at home. Then, on a hot August day, it’s time to jump in the pool at Lincoln Park, or go for a dip in the Menomonee River. And some die. It’s not fun to talk about, but it happens. According to Wisconsin’s Department of Human Services, 52 people drowned in 2013. While only two of these deaths were in swimming pools, another 36 were in natural waters. Less drownings happen in pools because they provide controlled environments, often with lifeguards on duty. MPS is doing a disservice to our city’s children if they are not given the opportunity to learn how to have fun in one of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes and waterways.

The same way that animals at the zoo don’t really exist in pictures and artifacts at the museum cannot be described fully by a teacher, teaching kids about water safety is better done at a pool rather than just sitting in a classroom. Did you take drivers’ ed and never get behind the wheel before you pulled out with your new license? Did you play a sport without ever showing up for a practice? Have you ever seen Milwaukee public pools in the summer and how a little kid gets lost in one? I'd argue that the mandatory sex ed my kids will be getting is not nearly as important as mandatory water safety. Ignorant teenagers with babies is not socially acceptable, but somehow preteen drowning victims are allowed?

As for the rules, I found the following in the MPS Field Trips and Excursions Document:

(k)      No “recreational swimming” (including, but not limited to, pools at motels, hotels, or water parks; lakes; parks; etc.) is allowed as part of a field trip experience unless appropriate certified lifesaving-trained staff is on duty and the activity is supervised by MPS staff.

Maybe there’s a newer document, but what the kids at MGIS were doing wasn’t even recreational swimming AND they met the requirement of having lifeguards, chaperones, and teachers. In fact, as a former MPS/ Red Cross-trained lifeguard, I can tell you that the number of adults in and around the pool meets any requirements I would have for ensuring the safety of my kids. From what I understand, the field trip was not expensive, and it was well attended. I’d be willing to go along and get in the pool if necessary, even for other schools. I believe in it that much, and you’ll see why next.

Unfortunately, the main reason I am passionate about MPS students getting into pools early and often is Tim Bell. He was born three days before me in 1975. He went to the French Immersion school with me through fifth grade. I got to say hi to him once a year when Marshall played Custer in football. Until my senior year. I looked for him on the field after the game, but he was no more. Lost on August 5th, 1993 to drowning, according to another friend on the Custer team. Maybe it was more than not knowing how to swim. I don’t know all the details. But I can tell you from attending a public high school with a pool that one gym teacher teaching thirty kids (half of whom are afraid of the deep end) is not how or when you want to teach swimming to our kids, especially if an alternative exists. I believe the staff at MGIS found this alternative and were acting proactively in saving lives. It never really mattered to Tim what he got on his ACT, Cogats, or PALS. Here’s a copy of his last record.

I hope no other parents of children in Milwaukee Public Schools have to deal with their kids drowning. I hope the move to cancel the field trips was not politically or fiscally motivated. Above all, I hope this or some similar experience is resurrected immediately.


"United States Social Security Death Index," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 14 May 2015), Timothy D Bell, 05 Aug 1993; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).


MPS Field Trips

 After receiving an email from MPS that I should call The Office of School Administration, I sent this email:


Your Director of Procurement and Risk Management directed me to direct my
concerns to your office. Please direct the article to the appropriate 
director and direct the change today.

Let's get this changed by Friday afternoon.


The  Director of School Safety and Security sent this reply:

I was not aware of this field trip, was this email intended for someone else?


I guess he's not the right person to contact, either. 

Dr. Brugger sent a letter home explaining something wasn't filled out correctly. I understand. Maybe it's not Central Office's fault. Maybe it's no one's. Maybe I take things too far.

However, do you think a small voucher school would have canceled this field trip? Or a homeschool mom? At the Lutheran school Helena and James could be attending for free, the principal could have forgotten a detail, told the pastor, emailed the staff, and all would have been handled.

I was directed to three or four directors, any of whom probably had the authority to call someone and get the field trip reinstated, but I instead received two emails saying it was someone else's problem. But it's not. It's our problem, not because Central Office decided to cancel a trip that they apparently never decided to cancel, but because there's not a simple way to fix a small error in a day. Here, look at this website I built in a day. Just me, and not a staff of 30 directors. And if the site had a small problem with the header size, I'd fix it. In five minutes.

It's a metaphor about bureaucracy in case you're part of the bureaucratic system and don't get it. But I can be proven wrong. If Central Office gets all of its moving parts in gear and gets the field trip back on schedule, I will run across the Bluemound Bridge in my (Helena and James bought) Superman pajamas when it reopens next week. Challenge made.





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