HARLEM — The distress was evident on the face of Tryvonne White, a P.S. 125 first-grader, as he lay on his back in the school's pool learning to float.
Agnes Davis, president and CEO of swim, swim, swim I Say, wrapped her arms around the boy and put his head on her shoulder. And then came a verse of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.'
"Just relax," Davis said as she hummed. Soon, the 6-year-old's legs stopped thrashing.
Learning to float is one of the skills that Davis wants every one of the pre-K to second-grade kids that she teaches at the school on West 123rd Street to learn. She's convinced it could one day save their lives.
About 88 percent of the students at P.S. 125 are black or Latino. It's children from these two groups who are most likely to drown, according to a study from the USA Swimming Foundation that found that 70 percent of black kids and 60 percent of Latino children don't know how to swim.
White kids don't fare much better, with 40 percent surveyed unable to swim. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children under 14 years of age.
"Children are curious about water. Or a friend will push another in the pool, mistakenly thinking they can swim," Davis said.
"Swimming is a valuable skill for our kids to have."
The school is one of the few in the city that has a working pool. There are 52 pools in New York City's more than 1,200 school buildings. Seven are not operational, although students at three of those have access to an alternative pool.
Principal Reginald Higgins said the pool, built in 1921, is one of P.S. 125's highlights. 70 percent of his 200 students participate in the swim program.
One of the other two schools co-located in the building is Columbia Secondary School for Math Science and Engineering, where a sixth-grader drowned while on a school trip to Long Island in 2010.
Higgins said many parents remember that incident and are anxious to get their kids involved with the swim program.
"The tide seems to be changing. We have parents with a fear of the water who say they don't want to pass that on to their children," said Davis who brought Olympic swim champion Cullen Jones to P.S. 125 last year as a part of his Make A Splash anti-drowning initiative.
Plus there are other benefits.
"It improves their overall concentration," said Higgins, who has been principal for three years.
First-grade teacher Sarah Landon agreed. "The confidence and excitement from learning leaks over into the classroom," she said.
"They get a lot of their energy out in the pool and come back to the class focused."
The students practice keeping their legs straight while swimming, blowing bubbles with their face in the water and the ever-important floating.
Jose Diego, an 8-year-old first-grader at the school, is one of the program's strongest students. His enthusiasm wasn't dampened even after he was reprimanded for doing a handstand under water during one lesson.
"I like the water and I like learning," Diego said.
He isn't keeping the knowledge he learns in the pool to himself. "I teach my cousins how to swim," he said.
The pool is starting to show its age. It was recently closed due to a ventilation issue that led to the development of mold.
Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said a fan is being installed and previously bricked up windows are being reopened to deal with the issue.
Davis said that time lost in the pool was valuable. As the school year comes to a close, Davis said the importance of the lessons she's been teaching the kids looms large.
"It makes me confident they will be safe during the summer," she said.