Save our pools: Invest in people, close the opportunity gap

By Maggie Knutson

Maggie Knutson, PhD, is a 5th Grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School.

When the last bell rings and school is out for the summer, I want my fifth graders to be reading, having adventures, and… doing cannonballs. Swimming is good, clean fun — and pools offer water safety, fitness, healthy social development (removed from phones, television and video games) and a sense of community.

Prior to 2010, there were four operational city pools serving four different communities in Berkeley. King pool in north Berkeley, West Campus pool in west Berkeley, the warm pool, serving our most vulnerable community (the very young, the disabled, the injured and the elderly) and, finally, Willard pool in south Berkeley. Built in 1963, Willard had fallen into disrepair and the city could not afford to make the necessary fixes to keep it open. Then, after a close and hard fought battle to get voters to fund an all-pools bond measure in 2010, it, along with the warm pool, was history.

Surveys are one of the City Council’s best ways to determine the needs of voters. Tonight they will discuss the results of the most recent community survey which will lead to final recommendations for the November 2012 ballot. However, data from surveys ought to be critically interpreted and considered in combination with data that is more representative of all of Berkeley citizens.

For example, in the latest survey, 58% of the 402 citizens questioned said that they were likely to be in favor of a bond that would rebuild Willard pool. This is about 10% shy of what is needed to pass the bond if it were on the ballot in November. However, almost one-third of the survey respondents were in a demographic unlikely to use Willard pool, ages 65 and over, and that’s roughly three times that age group’s population in Berkeley.

There were also misrepresentations in other groups, such as Asian and Latinos, and, of course, zero children were included in the survey.

That’s not to say the survey is flawed or it shouldn’t be considered, rather that it be interpreted with the understanding of whose voices are being amplified and whose are being marginalized.

In June 2008, the City Council paired with BUSD to create a 2020 Vision, which, in large part, was designed to close the achievement gap, a noble intention. To this end, the city committed to “develop plans… to remove barriers to learning and to promote healthy development for all Berkeley children and youth.” Most scholars and educators who study the “achievement gap” now call it “the opportunity gap” because it disproportionately impacts students of color who come from low-income backgrounds and who have fewer opportunities and less access to healthy and enriching experiences.

The two wealthiest zip codes are in north Berkeley near King pool (average household income there is more than double that of the densely populated west and south Berkeley). When one considers 2020 Vision and the wealth distribution in Berkeley, it is clear that closing Willard pool is in opposition to that vision. It limits access to water safety, fitness, and healthy social and community development for low-income students and students of color in that area of south Berkeley, where there is already a dearth of parks and green space.

We need to invest in all of our pools and do what is necessary to make sure they are functional and accessible to all populations, especially those in traditionally underserved areas.

The Institute of Medicine recently collaborated with the producers of an HBO series called The Weight of the Nation citing very scary statistics. The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. In addition, children consume more than 7.5 hours of media a day, 7 days a week. The Institute is urging communities to provide places where children affected by the opportunity gap can get the exercise needed to stay healthy:

Obesity risks are often disproportionate among minority, low-income, less educated, and rural populations, due to inequitable distribution of health promotion resources and community risk factors that contribute to disparities in obesity prevalence. For example, some communities may have no safe places to walk or play…. Because these inequities often result from policy decisions, change will require targeted efforts to promote and support robust, long-term community engagement and civic participation. (May, 2012)

As a teacher who works to over-serve the underserved at my school, the closing of Willard pool is confounding. We need a unified, concerted effort to better serve Berkeley citizens, child and adult, able-bodied and disabled, who are currently being underserved. I urge you to contact your councilmembers and join all pool supporters at the council meeting tonight to show your support for health, fitness and strong communities.

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