Just three weeks ago, groups of children stood at the side of the pool at the Martin Luther King Jr. Complex in Atlantic City crying because they did not want to go in the water.

“You should have been here the first day,” said Dave Demarest, swim coach and instructor for the Atlantic City public schools, as he watched a dozen students happily take turns diving off the side of the pool last Monday.

“I had to hold some of them up the whole first hour,” physical education teacher Anthony Nistico said, recalling the traumatic first day of summer swim lessons.

“I was very, very scared,” admitted Alexa Dorado, 8, before she raced off to join her friends in the water.

Students in the Atlantic City schools may live a quick walk from the ocean, but that doesn’t mean they know how to swim. This summer the district is offering free swim classes taught by district coaches.

“Some of them will tell you they know how to swim, but what they mean is that they can jump over the waves on the beach,” Demarest said. “The goal is to make them safe, but also to make them want to swim more and maybe join the swim team in high school.”

Demarest said more than 175 students enrolled in the program, which also includes a swim workout and diving lessons at the high school for all students in grades seven and up interested in competing at the high school level. Participants must live either in the city or in one of the sending districts of Brigantine, Ventnor, Margate and Longport.

The beginning swim clinic at the MLK Complex is open to all students entering grade three or higher. Swimmers come twice a week for 45 minutes. Each class has two instructors, including Demarest, Nistico and district coaches Nicole Meuse, William Howarth and Alex Grassi. Each site also has a lifeguard, Erin Collins at the high school and William Howze at the MLK Complex.

The district does offer swim classes during the school year, but only as a special program for fourth-graders. Demarest said third grade is a good age to start because the students are old enough to listen and be responsible, but young enough not to be too embarrassed that they can’t swim.

“Once they’re in high school, they are more embarrassed, and it’s harder for them to learn,” Demarest said.

Superintendent Donna Haye had promised to expand the district’s swim offerings after a controversy last year with the Atlantic City Aquatic Club, which had used the high school pool for years at a very low fee. The district raised the fees, noting that most of the club’s members were not from the district, and the club left the city.

Haye said the new program will give children not only lessons, but the opportunity to become lifelong swimmers who could also help expand the high school swimming and diving programs.

“We wanted to make sure we had a program that would be open to all our students,” she said.

Demarest said students on the crew team also have to be able to swim, and good swimmers will eventually be able to get Red Cross lifeguard and water safety instructor certifications that can help them get summer jobs.

The summer program, while still small, is attracting students from throughout the district. The plan is to incorporate it into ongoing summer and after-school programs.

MLK Complex Principal Jodi Burroughs said the pool is popular with students, and she is thrilled to see them getting actual lessons rather than just splashing and playing around during recreation programs. She pointed out a student who had arrived mid-year speaking little English, but is now learning to swim along with everyone else.

Diana Pineda’s daughter Alexa, 8, normally attends Richmond Avenue School across town, but she arranged to get her to the swim classes this summer.

“I have a fear of water myself,” Pineda said. “She wants to go to pools, but I want her to be able to swim first.”

Other parents also shared their own fears of water and said they wanted their children to embrace swimming.

“The first day was so hard for him,” Amanda Nohpal said of her son, Jhon Rojas, 8, as he gave her a grin and a thumbs-up after successfully completing an exercise. .

Most of the younger students are still wearing a swim-belt flotation device to help them maintain proper form and use their legs, Demarest said. A few are swimming on their own. The district is providing goggles and equipment.

Lizbeth Castro said she felt it was important for her daughter, Alexa Dorado, to overcome her fear, especially living at the shore.

“She was petrified,” Castro said. “But the coaches are amazing, and so patient. Within 30 minutes she was in the water by herself. She came home and told everyone.”

Castro said she will use the experience as a lesson for her daughter on how you have to face and overcome fears in life, and not run away from them.

“I want her to know that there is nothing that can hold you back,” she said. “Don’t let anything stop you.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.