Farmingdale, Hicksville open new school pools with community access
With free open swimming sessions and low-cost lessons at new pools, Long Island school districts aim to provide important community access for all ages.
Catherine Russ is a retired teacher, but she’ll be in class in the Farmingdale School District this fall for another purpose …
…as a student of water aerobics at the district’s new Aquatic Center, which officially opened to the community and students in September.
The $17.1 million center includes two indoor pools: a competition pool — starting at 6 feet deep with eight lanes and a dive tank — and a community pool — a separate, 3.5 feet deep pool intended for classes.
The Aquatic Center replaces the indoor high school pool that was constructed in 1970 and is now more than 50 years old. The new center is built on land adjacent to the Howitt Middle School.
Because it’s a separate building from the school, it can offer swim classes, parent-and-me classes, water aerobics and free open swim to district residents during the day, says Paul Defendini, district superintendent.
Residents will have first dibs on recreational classes, which will entail a nominal fee, and then they will be open to others for a higher price, he says.
The Hicksville School District also recently opened an aquatic center to the public with just one competition pool that starts at four feet deep, says Matthew Calarco, center director. While its center began hosting the district’s competitive swim teams when it opened in August 2021, due to COVID, the facility opened to the general public this summer.
A school district pool that’s open to the public can provide communities with the opportunity for its young children to learn to swim, for its senior citizens to do laps when other exercises may be too tough on the body, and for its school-age students from local organizations as well as from the high school to compete, Calarco says.
“The town of Hicksville does not have a community pool. This is our public pool,” Calarco says.
The pool is adjacent to the high school; the football field and bleachers can be seen through the building’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows. “It’s a gorgeous facility … Because the pool is so new, we’re developing programs as we go along,” he says.
Currently, both Farmingdale and Hicksville are open Monday through Friday. Hicksville is also open on Saturday for CYO and interscholastic swim programs and plans to start a “learn to swim” program.
Hicksville plans to be open 12 months a year; Farmingdale has yet to make that decision.
Kevin Jensen, 68, of Hicksville, just started swimming laps while the Hicksville pool is open to district residents 50 years and older for free between 8 and 10 a.m. on designated weekdays. Free lap swimming for any age district resident is from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays.
“I just think it’s fantastic for the school district to do this for its residents,” Jensen says.
During the summer he can swim in various public outdoor pools, but the winter is a challenge, he says. “I have to struggle to find a place to swim indoors without paying a lot of money,” he says.
This is the Hicksville School District’s first pool; as soon as the district can find lifeguards who are available during the school day, it plans to add physical education classes in its grades K to 12 curriculum that might include swim lessons, water basketball and water polo, kayaking and paddleboarding, Calarco says.
At Farmingdale, ninth graders are already required to take a 10-week swim class at the high school’s pool, which has not yet officially closed; that requirement will continue but be moved to the new facility next school year.
SWIM TEAM IMPRESSED
Other school districts on Long Island have pools as well – Long Beach, Hewlett-Woodmere, Jericho, Half Hollow Hills, Westbury and West Islip, for instance – but those pools aren’t open to the public during the school day because they are in school buildings.
They are used primarily for the school swim teams, though some public classes may also be offered in the evenings.
That used to be the restriction at Farmingdale as well, when the pool was in the high school, because community members couldn’t enter during the academic periods, Defendini says.
The school girls’ and boys’ swim teams will practice and compete at the new venue – their Varsity Girls’ first meet there, against Long Beach High School, was on ribbon-cutting day. Other team members marveled at the new facility.
“It’s really big. It’s really nice,” says senior Jackson Vignona, 17, who has been on the swim team all through high school. “It still doesn’t feel like it’s ours.”
LESSONS SAVE LIVES
Ed Castigan, 66, is a Farmingdale resident, was a member of the first Farmingdale High Varsity swim team and has been a lifeguard at Jones Beach for 47 years. He applauds the opportunity for community members to take swimming lessons at school district aquatic centers.
“Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death among toddlers,” Castigan says. “We’re surrounded by water on Long Island. When you can swim, you can save a life, and that’s the most important thing you could do for anybody.”
Castigan says swimming at Farmingdale High School “changed my life and opened a lot of doors in my life.” He earned a full tuition college scholarship to swim for York College in Pennsylvania.
Paulana Lamonier, of Uniondale, founder of the group Black People Will Swim, echoes Castigan, saying swimming is a life skill that all people need, and pointing out that Black children are three to four times more likely than white children to drown.
“It is important that they are creating a space where African American people can participate in these lessons,” she says. “We’re hoping to get those drowning numbers as close to zero as possible.”
In Farmingdale, the new facility won’t just benefit people in the water; because it is just blocks from downtown Farmingdale, it will be good for local business owners as well, says Farmingdale Mayor Ralph Ekstrand, who is also on the Chamber of Commerce Board and manages Moby Drugs on Main Street.
The Aquatic Center was built as part of a $36 million bond approved by voters in 2016 that also included various other sports fields and stadiums in the district. The Farmingdale pool was one of the oldest in a Long Island School District.
“It met the basic needs for our swim team for the past 50 years,” Defendini says. “Eventually something was going to go wrong with it and we wouldn’t be able to bring it back.”
West Islip High School’s pool is even older than Farmingdale’s, says Paul Romanelli, school superintendent. It opened in 1957; the school has a league and county championship swimming banner from as early as 1962, he says.
“Not only can we build on our instructional program for students, we can also involve many community groups as well,” he says of having a district pool for generations. “And of course the fact that we have such a close proximity to the ocean, it’s really beneficial for our students just to be able to build on their level of being swimmers as well and improve safety for them when they’re out in the ocean and pools within the community.”