Family-Friendly Swimming Lessons

By Ruthanne Dorlon

Formal swimming lessons reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to USA Swimming Foundation statistics. Yet Susan, a work-from-home mom with four young children, has had difficulty finding lessons to accommodate her family’s busy schedule. To enroll her children in lessons, she first had to pay a family-registration fee and then pay a per-lesson fee. Class registration was in-person, on a first-come, first-serve basis. With only two instructors scheduled to teach on Saturday mornings, her family’s schedule consisted of four separate lesson times. She had to spend two hours each week waiting with three children while one was in the water. On top of that, she was unable to keep her children in lessons consistently because, if they were scheduled to be out of town one week, they were not allowed make-ups. With that many children in lessons, missing one week meant four swimming lesson fees were wasted, two-thirds the cost of one six-week session of classes for one child. This is only one story among many I have heard from multiple-career families that make up our member and non-member clientele.

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Here are eight ways we have attempted to meet families’ needs:

1.       We offer an easy online registration system that clearly states prices for group lessons. A family may register multiple children online and pay in one transaction.

2.       We make it simple for parents to decide where to place their child because we give parents only four options. Parent Participation is for children under 3, Preschool is for children ages 3 to 5, and children 5 to 11 can participate in Youth Beginner or Stroke Development. On the website, each class category has a simple description that emphasizes that certified instructors will determine the appropriate level for each child.

3.       We offer clearly dated sessions with specific days and date ranges posted on the website and on the receipt. During the school year, sessions are divided into five or six weeks with one lesson per week on the same day at the same time. During summer, families can choose from three formats depending on their week-to-week schedule. They can bring their children daily for one week. They can bring their children for four days a week for two weeks. They can continue the one-day-a-week format on weekends.

4.       We offer all levels at the same time. A family that preregisters can enroll all the children in one half-hour time block, so everyone can take their swimming lesson, shower, and be on their way within an hour.

5.       We do not cancel a class if there is only one child on the first day. The small class gives an opportunity for new participants to join later or a place to put a child who needs to make up a lesson.

6.       We offer lessons at times that meet families’ busy schedules. During the school year, weekday lessons are offered after “normal” working hours. On weekends, we offer Saturday- and Sunday-morning lessons to better accommodate busy schedules. We offer morning weekday classes for children under 5 so stay-at-home parents can be home before lunchtime.

7.       We provide make-ups for missed swim lessons. During the first lesson, a parent is informed that if there is a need for a make-up, he or she must call for an appointment.

8.       We make it a point to communicate with every parent. All phone messages are answered in a timely manner. On the first and generally the second day of lessons, a staff member is on deck, besides the lifeguards, to greet each parent and answer any questions. Between lessons, time is scheduled so instructors can update parents on their child’s progress that day.

Adjusting To Family Needs
We continually seek feedback from parents as to what works best for them. This feedback dictates the times and days that we teach. The website has continually become more user-friendly as the IT department has implemented innovative technology and design. We started moving from private lessons to group sessions because we had a shortage of instructors who would teach multiple privates in the same day! It was serendipitous when we realized that group lessons were more profitable than privates. We moved to teaching all levels at the same time because parents wouldn’t stick around long enough for their children at higher swim levels to get a lesson. We reduced the choices parents need to make when we realized how much time we spent trying to help parents determine the level at which to enroll their child. We chose to do short 5- or 6-week sessions because longer sessions and multiple days for lessons during the school year became reasons why people were not signing up. We choose to do make-ups because they provide a better customer experience.

Staff And Organizational Support
Our organization saves money by requiring each applicant to already own a certificate for the applied position. Further, a water-safety instructor does not have to be a lifeguard to teach swimming. This gives us the option of finding young mothers or older swimmers who are interested in part-time work. Another incentive we give for encouraging the extra expense of swimmers owning their own certificates is that we have a separate, higher pay scale for those who teach lessons than for those with hourly guard pay. The former only receive this level of pay when they are teaching. An instructor must also teach group lessons to earn the opportunity to make an even higher rate of pay for private lessons. The instructor must sign up in advance to teach and must make the commitment for the entire session. The website is not maintained by the department; however, we have plenty of opportunities to change content, and the IT department is very responsive to requests. We have found that customer service is a big selling point in the Learn-to-Swim program. It requires extra time on my part, as well as my staff members’, to be available in person and by phone for parents. This expense is absorbed in the higher pay scale and is an expected activity for staff members. We teach multiple lifeguarding, water-safety instructor courses, and lifeguarding-instructor courses to the public. This helps us keep a steady flow of applicants for job openings.

We provide a service to families in the community, which means we look at programming from their perspective, instead of planning programming around what works from the administration. We ask for and listen to feedback from families in order to meet their needs. The program has grown consistently over the years and has changed considerably from the feedback we have received. I imagine that, as we continue to listen, the program five years from now will look different from what it looks like today. Family needs may change, but the need for formal swim lessons for every child does not change.

Ruthanne Dorlon is the Aquatics Manager for RDV Sportsplex Athletic Club in Orlando, Fla. She has served in this capacity since 2005. Her interest in providing family-friendly swimming lessons stems from the fact that she and her husband Bob have raised five children and have nine grandchildren. She can be reached at rdorlon@rdvsportsplex.com.