A City Effort to Help Marginalized Kids Get Swim Lessons Sets Parents on Edge

“They started the whole equity thing, but they kind of didn’t tell people about it,” says a disgruntled parent.

The most cutthroat Swifties on Ticketmaster would pity Portland parents trying to register their children for swimming lessons through Portland Parks & Recreation.

They set iPhone alarms and calendar alerts for the exact minute that registration opens. Failure means a distant spot on the waitlist and children who still can’t swim come middle school. Parents feel lucky to get lessons at pools across town at weird times. Those with enough money flee to private pools.

It was this way for years before the pandemic. Now, add a backlog of children who didn’t get lessons while pools were closed and a national lifeguard shortage and the result is a fiasco. In winter 2019, PP&R offered more than 3,200 swimming lesson slots. This season, the number is down to 800, according to the parks bureau.

Further spiking parents’ blood pressure: Nearly half those slots are spoken for before registration opens because they were offered in advance to families in marginalized groups. The result is that many parents feel tricked, like they waited patiently for swim lessons that were only a mirage.

Forty-six percent of available swim lesson spaces were filled during early registration this season, the parks bureau says. That registration period is intended for people of color, households experiencing poverty, seniors, teens, immigrants, refugees, and people with disabilities.

Since winter 2022, PP&R has opened activity registration to those groups a week before general registration begins. At 12:30 pm on Jan. 18, for example, everyone is welcome to register for the next season of PP&R activities. The aforementioned groups have been invited to sign up for lessons on the phone or in person since last Wednesday.

Few people disagree with the policy’s aims. But the rollout has ruffled the feathers of some parents whose children have been locked out of swimming lessons for years. Further complicating matters, the policy runs on the honor system.

“While early registration is intended to improve access for underserved communities, no one is excluded from signing up during the early registration period,” says PP&R spokesman Mark Ross.

PP&R offers an explanation of the early registration policy at the bottom of the registration landing page. In bold is the sentence: “This may result in some activities being full prior to general registration opening day.”

Anecdotally, many parents say they missed that paragraph and found out about the policy after calling the bureau, confused and frustrated, on registration day.

Tara Lilley didn’t see it either when she peeked at swimming lesson times for her 10-year-old daughter last spring. It was more than an hour before general registration opened, but the “otter” lesson at Mt. Scott Community Center that she had her eye on was already full; she was waitlisted. Lilley ranted on a Facebook parenting group, using 17 angry exclamation points.

“They started the whole equity thing, but they kind of didn’t tell people about it,” Lilley says.

PP&R’s primary challenge in meeting demand for swimming lessons is the lifeguard shortage, which is nationwide. The Portland City Council and the city’s labor unions agreed last month to hike wages for lifeguards and swimming instructors in hopes of recruiting more. They have already added 26, says spokesman Ross.

Meanwhile, he says, the bureau has a mandate from a levy approved by voters in 2020 to improve access for underserved communities. To that end, it translated registration materials into 19 languages and introduced the Access Pass, which discounts activity fees up to 90%.

The early registration pilot program, which extends through the end of this summer, is aimed at lowering generations of barriers to recreation programming for marginalized communities. The barriers have real public health outcomes: Drowning death rates among Black children ages 5 to 9, for example, are 2.6 times higher than for white children the same age, according to PP&R.

At the Rosewood Initiative, a community resource center at Southeast 141st Avenue and Stark Street, employees printed out flyers and did direct outreach to their contacts to tell them about the early registration benefit, says Rosewood spokeswoman Merrill Liddicoat.

“A lot of our community members are not as plugged in to the city’s programming, and a lot of those programs fill up super fast,” Liddicoat says. “This allows us the time to do direct outreach beforehand and offer support in registering people.”

Some of Rosewood’s neighbors speak limited English or aren’t computer savvy, Liddicoat says. Rosewood has staffers who speak Spanish, Nepali and Rohingya.

“Early registration is a great method of increasing access to parks programs,” Liddicoat says. “That’s what a lot of our work is about, increasing access.”

But, ironically, even some of the people who are the intended recipients of early registration either feel uncomfortable using the benefit or still don’t know about it.

Lilley felt grateful to land her daughter an otter lesson at the East Portland Community Center despite getting stuck in Interstate 205 traffic on the way home to Brentwood-Darlington two nights a week.

At Mt. Scott Community Center, her regular pool, Lilley asked the front desk employee about how to get on the early registration list. Lilley has a disability that qualifies her for the early registration program. While the front desk employee at Mt. Scott was happy to help her pick out swimming lessons for her daughter, Lilley passed.

“I’ve thought about it and I don’t feel marginalized enough,” Lilley says. Her daughter turns 11 in February but insists on swimming with a full snorkel mask because she cannot hold her breath underwater.

Ailyn Taylor, a mother of two, had to take a break during her job as a teacher to be on her phone for 12:30 pm registration; her 6-year-old daughter was waitlisted anyway.

“It had me really frustrated, and my kid was also frustrated,” Taylor says. “What else could I do? Learning to swim is a necessity for her age.”

She has tried and failed to register her daughter for swimming lessons for three years now. As a creative solution for her disappointed daughter, Taylor planned a family vacation to Eastern Oregon, where her husband tried to teach their daughter to swim in hotel pools.

Taylor is from the Philippines and therefore eligible for early registration, but was unaware of the program.

She has settled for taking her children to open swim on weekends. Her daughter has never had a formal lesson.

“That’s her passion,” she says. “She’s a free girl in the water.”