With winter officially here, the juniors and seniors at Pennridge High School in Bucks County have summer and the prospects of a lifeguarding job on their minds.
The students are enrolled in a physical education course - one of only 32 in the Philadelphia region - where they are learning skills that will qualify them for Red Cross certification to work as lifeguards.
The class is in its premier year at Pennridge and has attracted 156 juniors and seniors. It is an extension of the district's mandatory swimming programs for second graders and for high school sophomores that began two years ago.
Sophomores must pass a skills test before they can enroll in the course. Students who successfully complete the course receive high school credits and have the option of receiving American Red Cross lifeguarding certification for a fee at the end of year.
Students were especially attracted to the class when they heard it was "an opportunity to learn a skill and have a potential job," said Tom Wyatt, one of three physical education instructors teaching lifeguarding. "They are highly motivated, and the reason they are taking it is they have the opportunity to become a trained professional."
Wyatt knows all about the demands of the job.
He has spent 17 years as a lifeguard in Cape May, 15 as a working lifeguard and two as a lieutenant supervisor. Appointed by the captain of the beach patrol, Wyatt was made a lieutenant based on his merit and years of experience. Every year, he trains a beach patrol of 75.
With beaches closing early each summer because of a lack of guards, Wyatt said the course will be beneficial to both the community and students.
"Every patrol deals with the issue of a lack of guards each year," Wyatt said. "Most guards are college or high school athletes and have to return to school. By Aug. 15, the numbers begin to dwindle. We try to fill the gap with part-time guards but sometimes the only option is to start closing beaches."
Pennridge is planning a field trip before school ends to Cape May to show students what it is like to be a beach lifeguard and give them the chance to take the open-water swim test to become one.
While teaching helps him stay in shape, Wyatt especially enjoys going to work in shorts and flip flops. He jokes that one of the best parts about teaching in the pool is getting to wear sandals all year.
The instructor acts more as a coach to the students, stressing their motto, "training saves lives," to motivate students to push themselves to excel.
"I have had a lot of great mentors in my training. This is a chance for me to give back. If there was an opportunity for me to take a course like this in high school, I would have been ecstatic," Wyatt said.
Pennridge High School in Perkasie has 2,406 students. The high school finished renovations in September, including the addition of their natatorium which opened in November 2005. (To offer the course, schools must have a pool. As a result, only two schools in South Jersey offer the course: Camden County Institute of Technology and Gloucester County Institute of Technology, according to Red Cross officials.)
Enthusiastic about their training, the Pennridge students hit the pool and begin their warm-up laps without even being asked by Wyatt.
"See him?" Wyatt points to a student in the water. "He knows he's not the best swimmer but needs to train hard to reach his goal."
To finish their warm-up, Wyatt throws a dummy swimmer in the pool which sinks to the bottom as students swap diving to the bottom to save his yellow, plastic torso.
Rich Levy, a junior enrolled in the class, said he was attracted to the course because of the built-in job training.
"I definitely plan on getting the certification. I want to get a job over the summer at one of the local pools," Levy said.
Because students are taking the course through the high school rather than a private institution, they are able to bypass course fees and pay minimal costs. Students will pay under $100 for their certification as opposed to a $295 for an American Red Cross training course.
"Can I have a victim and two lifeguards?" Wyatt's voice echoes as students raise their hands out of the water. One student fakes a drowning, while the other swims with him to safety to another who is waiting with a board to pull him out.
"We are really trying to teach students proper procedures and how to carry them out in situations like these," said Wyatt. "Aside from aquatic skills, they will learn CPR, how to use an AED [automated external defibrillator] and proper 911 call procedures. They'll learn how an emergency access plan is implemented and what steps have to be taken and all the follow up."
Playing volleyball and swimming in inner tubes, students set the scene for a typical summer day at the local pool. One of the lifeguards spots a swimmer struggling to stay above water. As the other yells, "Everyone clear the pool!" and yells for someone to call 911, the student guard jumps in with a rescue tube to pull the swimmer to safety.
"Some of the students in the course found out how challenging it is. They thought it would be an easy grade," said Darcy Rabenda, health and physical education coordinator. Rabenda said if the school board sees this course as a success, officials hope to add courses in scuba and skin diving.
Junior Rich Johnson, already a certified lifeguard continuing his training, said his training goes beyond the pool. "If you find someone on the street hurt or not breathing, I can use the skills I learned in this class."
That's just what Wyatt wants to hear.
"Cooperation, problem solving, team work, effective communication, handling confrontation - they are going to leave this course with life skills that go beyond lifeguarding that they can call upon later on," Wyatt said.
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