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It may not feel like spring yet in much of the country, but in Phoenix, it's practically swimming weather. And that means a new crop of teenagers training to be lifeguards. From member station KJZZ, Jude Joffe-Block reports the city is trying to add some diversity to that classic summer job.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: When 17-year-old Showna Wells goes to public pools to swim, she notices something about the lifeguards.
SHOWNA WELLS: I've never really seen, like, somebody black like me.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The city of Phoenix is trying to change that. This winter, city staff came to Wells' school, Alhambra High, to recruit new lifeguards. More than 90 percent of the students there are black, Latino or Asian. None of the teens who shows up to hear the pitch is on the school swim team because, like many under-resourced schools, Alhambra doesn't have one. The city's Melissa Boyle is aware of this.
MELISSA BOYLE: As long as you can get from one end of the pool to the other with a tube and then without a tube, we'll work with you in your swimming abilities.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Boyle doesn't sugarcoat the job's downsides.
BOYLE: Blood, poop and vomit, you guys are going to be the rookies, you're gonna have to clean that up.
JOFFE-BLOCK: But the kids aren't discouraged. The job pays well, more than $11 an hour. And they know employers eager to hire teens are few and far between. Boyle's colleague Kelly Martinez takes on the delicate task of explaining to the recruits the scenario the city is trying to correct.
KELLY MARTINEZ: The kids in the pool are all, you know, either Hispanic or black or whatever and every lifeguard is white, we don't like that. The kids don't relate, there's language issues.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Martinez turns to a Latina student next to her.
MARTINEZ: Do you speak Spanish? See? Awesome. We need more lifeguards who can speak Spanish.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Competitive swimming still has a reputation as a white sport. And a national study released in 2010 found blacks and Latinos reported much lower swimming proficiency compared to whites.
BECKY HULETT: It's that catch-22.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Becky Hulett oversees Phoenix's public pools.
HULETT: If the kids don't learn how to swim, as adults they're not going to swim, they're not going to take their own kids to swim.
JOFFE-BLOCK: So two years ago, Hulett began rethinking lifeguard recruitment. Traditionally, Phoenix's 500 lifeguards came from more affluent parts of town, most of which are farther from the public pools.
HULETT: It really populated from schools that have swim teams, and so that was our feeder into our lifeguarding programs.
JOFFE-BLOCK: To help diversify its lifeguard ranks, the city raised about $15,000 over the past two years in scholarships to offset the cost of lifeguard certification courses. Recruits who pass a swim test at the end can apply to be city lifeguards.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go down on the right side, come back on the other side. Does that make sense?
JOFFE-BLOCK: As the teens swim laps, it's clear many haven't had much formal training. But the coaches of the course aren't fazed and are prepared to put in the time to teach.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you're not strong swimmers, stay closer to the side.
JESUS JIMENEZ: Honestly, I have a little bit a fear of the water, and I just wanted to overcome that fear.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Jesus Jimenez is high school junior who didn't grow up going to pools with his family, but likes the idea of lifeguarding.
JIMENEZ: It is nice to, like, have the satisfaction of knowing that if somebody is in trouble you just save them at any time.
JOFFE-BLOCK: If Jimenez is selected to be a lifeguard, other pool staff will work with him on his swimming skills all summer. As for Showna Wells who had never seen a black lifeguard, she passed the certification course.
WELLS: Like, I wouldn't have never thought, oh, yeah, I'm going to be lifeguard, you know? I never would have thought it. Probably McDonald's or something, but not a lifeguard.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Wells will find out in early April if she's been hired. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix.
CORNISH: That story came to us from Fronteras, a public radio collaboration in the southwest that focuses on the border and changing demographics.
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