When David Winker got to Shenandoah Pool at 12:40 a.m. Monday to sign up his daughter for swim lessons, he wasn’t even first in line. That title belonged to the man asleep in a silver four-door parked right in front of the pool gates, straddling Southwest 22nd Avenue and the curb.
By 2 a.m., nine parents had lined up, equipped with fold-up chairs, portable phone chargers, snacks and water. They had a long wait ahead of them: Registration wouldn’t open until 6 a.m.
“I love seeing these parents out here fighting for their kids,” Winker, 48, said. “Who wakes up at one in the morning? You have to really want to do this for your kids.”
This Oct. 22 registration isn’t a one-off. The city of Miami’s pools offer five levels of swim lessons in month-long bundles — $45 for eight, twice-a-week classes. But with only 78 spots each month, they fill up quickly: Show up at the hour when registration officially opens, and there may be none left. It’s a risk some parents don’t want to take.
“I was surprised and upset,” said City Commissioner Manolo Reyes, describing his reaction to learning about the registration lines. “I feel bad that we haven’t provided the facilities for these people to not be in line for five hours.”
Reyes, whose district includes Shenandoah Park, said he only learned about the lines when the Herald requested comment. “We need more pools,” he said.
While Shenandoah is particularly popular because it’s close to the surrounding residential community and its swim classes have a high pass rate, it isn’t an outlier.
“We experience a high demand for all pool locations,” Stephanie Severino, city parks department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Classes are made available based on pool capacity and there have been no reductions in available slots at our year-round locations.”
The city of Miami has 12 aquatics sites, and all but one offer learn-to-swim lessons. Right now, only five are offering classes because some pools are only open during the summer and others are closed for repairs. And in September, the city announced it would cut the hours of operation at one of them, Grapeland Water Park, to save money.
The price is another draw. At $45 per month for Miami residents, the lessons are significantly cheaper than those at private pools. The University of Miami’s Hurricane Aquatics classes cost $290 for five semi-private lessons.
All of this tightens the competition for learn-to-swim classes at the city’s public pools.
“Us parents are fighting like crazy for programs for our kids,” Winker said.
The overnight campouts may soon be a thing of the past. The parks department is finding a way to reserve some class spots for parents re-registering kids, Severino said, and working on an app for online registration and payment.
And the city’s capital budget devotes $5 million to a new, larger swimming pool for Shenandoah, scheduled for completion in August 2020. It also dedicates about $1 million to citywide pool improvements by the end of 2019.
Each month, Winker spends up to five hours in line at Shenandoah to sign up his 5-year-old daughter, Cristina, for swim lessons. She started swimming at Shenandoah two years ago, first in the pool’s parent-and-toddler classes, then in the “preschool aquatics” class.
Now, Winker is enrolling her in level-one classes, the next step up; the swim lessons go up to level three. He praised the swim coaches at Shenandoah, which, conveniently, is across the street from Winker’s home. And the Miami Tarpons swim team practices there, giving Cristina an aquatic role model. She’s now learning the crawl.
“I want to give her the opportunity to do what she wants,” Winker said. “It’s an uplifting environment. She sees the older kids swimming their laps, getting awards.”
Evelyn, 46, was third in line at Shenandoah on Monday morning to register her 9-year-old son in the level-one class. He has ADHD, she said, and swimming helps him focus.
“It’s a sport that is helping him a lot,” said Evelyn, who declined to give her last name. “The coaches are very good at motivating the kids.”
With a cafecito in tow, Evelyn planned to spend the wait chatting with three other women in line. This is how they met and bonded — sitting by the gates of Shenandoah Pool each month until the sun rises and the learn-to-swim registration opens.
“The hours go quickly,” she said.