Mpls. school to honor restored 1930s therapeutic swimming poolby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis, Minn. — The hallways and classrooms at Dowling Urban Environmental School are filled with the things you might see at a typical elementary school -- lockers holding backpacks, student artwork hung on the walls, child-sized desks and chairs. That is, until you open the heavy metal door leading to the school's therapeutic swimming pool.
There, children splash and blow bubbles in the 94-degree water, following their instructor's directions.
It's extremely rare to find an elementary school with any kind of swimming pool, but it's even rarer to find one that's so old. The pool was built in 1936 with money from the federal Works Progress Administration, and it was unique enough to attract President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the school for a brief visit that year.
The porcelain tile has largely held up all these years, but it was cleaned and restored recently as part of a $950,000 renovation project that also included installing new showers, replacing the pool's plumbing system and creating new changing areas.
On Wednesday, Dowling school officials and members of the community will rededicate the pool, which has played an important role in serving children with special needs.
"It relaxes them," said Joe Rossow, the school's principal. "With kids who can't move around actively, in most pools they get too cold."
Most indoor pools are heated to about 86 degrees. Maintaining a 92 to 94-degree temperature is expensive -- it costs about $42,000 a year to heat Dowling's pool. But Rossow said it's worth it.
"Kids have a chance to participate in water activities and develop skills they might not otherwise learn," he said.
While no longer a school exclusively for children with disabilities, Dowling still has five special education classrooms that mix with regular classes during certain periods of the day.
The pool has a wheelchair lift and a wheelchair-accessible shower area. A storage room holds life jackets, foam noodles and other equipment to help kids learn in the water.
Pat Koopmans, a volunteer at the school who had been the school's pool teacher for 26 years before she retired, said she had to figure out activities and lessons on her own because she didn't know of any other schools in Minnesota with swimming pools.
"There was no one to talk to, no one to share things with," Koopmans said.
Koopmans remembers using toy boats as a tool to urge children scared of the water away from the pool walls.
For the children with special needs, Koopmans said the pool is invaluable when it comes to developing skills, independence and confidence.
"Kids that couldn't do something on dry land could do it in the water," Koopmans said, remembering one special-needs boy, Billy, who was confident in the water and could show other children there was nothing to be scared about.
"Billy could do something others couldn't do or were scared to do," she said. "It opened doors in his mind and it opened doors in the minds of the other children."
Koopmans, who also taught evening community education classes at the pool, said it will continue to be an important resource.
"I'm just so thankful they've recognized the value of it, the treasure that it is," she said.
The school's third-graders wrote letters to try to persuade President Barack Obama, his wife or Education Secretary Arne Duncan to attend Wednesday's rededication, but they didn't have any luck.
Instead, school officials are remembering Roosevelt's visit in 1936. A newsletter describing the visit is still around, along with pictures of the president. According to the newsletter, it cost $100,000 to build the pool and heating costs would be $6 for every hour the pool was in use.
A display case at the school's entrance contains several artifacts from that era, including a shovel used during the groundbreaking for the pool.
Rossow said the Works Progress Administration built the pool to last.
"Thousands of kids and wheelchairs and equipment have been over that tile," he said. "It's a piece of history that's going to be preserved for many years."