INDEPENDENCE -- "Lean back and kick ... just little kicks."
On her back in the shallow end of the city of Independence's pool on Fifth Street, Sarai Rojo-Ocampo does her best to oblige swim instructor Jessica Cortez.
Rojo-Ocampo exhales, struggling to simultaneously move her legs and perform the backstroke motion Cortez is trying to impart.
The girl hesitates momentarily, pulls her chin toward her chest to look at her feet and begins to sink.
"Remember to kick!" Cortez encourages.
Rojo-Ocampo makes it to the end of the pool, smiles and heads to the back of a line to learn her next technique.
"You have to make your whole body long," explains Rojo-Ocampo, a third-grader at Ash Creek Elementary School. "I know how to swim, but I've never done my arms in big circles."
Around her, classmates traverse the length of the pool using paddle boards and floats. More experienced children practice "pencil dives" -- feet first, arms at your sides, mouth closed -- in the deep end.
It's 11 a.m. on a Thursday, a time when many of these children would normally be doing math problems in Ash Creek teacher Dale Claussen's classroom. Claussen admits, however, the children seem to prefer being poolside.
During the past few weeks, the Monmouth-Independence YMCA has been collaborating with each of the four elementary schools in Central School District to provide free, 30-minute swim lessons for every willing-and-able third-grader.
"In many ways, it's become a tradition," says Monmouth Elementary School Principal Rich McFarland. "It's something the children have an expectation for and something we really want to provide."
The program has been in place since 2001, when the district used a federal grant to pay for swim lessons -- partly because of safety concerns surrounding the presence of the nearby Willamette River.
"It's giving kids life-saving techniques and helping them make smart decisions when they're out on the water," says Barb Welander, Ash Creek principal.
When those grant funds disappeared, each elementary school tapped into donations and parent club contributions to continue the lessons. McFarland says almost all of the district's third-graders participate, at a cost of $600 to $800 per school.
The YMCA provides instruction at a reduced price and the city of Independence allows use of the facility about a month before its official opening on June 14.
"We have some kids who would probably never get the opportunity to swim if it wasn't for this program," says Tim Barry, M-I YMCA director. "A lot of them can't take private lessons because of the cost."
The nature of the lessons is geared to each child's skill level, from treading water and refining breaststrokes to simply blowing bubbles from their nose beneath the surface.
The recent blustery weather didn't seem to dampen the kids' spirits last week -- the pool is heated.
But for some Ash Creek third-graders, it was their first real exposure to the water. A few newbies were so intimidated, they wouldn't put their head under water. Or they insisted on holding their instructor's hand before jumping in the shallow end.
"These are the kids you want to be comfortable in the water," says Steve Moser, a YMCA swim instructor whose kids have gone through the program. For example, "If they get in trouble in the water, we're trying to teach them to float on their back."
Jessica Massey of Monmouth says her 8-year-old daughter, Madison, begged her to take the swim lessons. For days at home, "it's all she talks about."
Jessica Massey says the program was a great opportunity.
"You can't really go out on a river, lake or boating if you don't know how to swim," she notes, "so this really adds an important dimension to your life."