CAMDEN, N.J. — After the accidental drowning death of eight year old Jazir Tuten-Sewell back in August, 2016, Joseph Conway, Superintendent of Schools for the Camden’s Charter School Network, saw an urgent need in the community.
“For our community, swimming is hard for many reasons including physical exertion, fear, body image, and hair care,” Conway said.
When the network purchased the YMCA building on Federal Street in Camden in 2010 to expand their classroom space, the administration wasn’t quite sure what to do with the swimming pool.
“As a school we often questioned our financial and physical space commitment to having a pool,” Conway said. “Should we just fill it in and utilize it for classroom purposes?”
While the debate went on whether or not to keep the pool, the facility was used by students on a strictly voluntary basis more for recreation than education. The network — Camden’s Pride Elementary, Katz-Dalsey Elementary, Camden’s Promise Middle, and Camden Academy High — would bus the few students who were interested in taking a dip in the pool.
“It was a splash and play time in the pool and the bus was always two thirds empty,” Conway said.
With the lack of interest, along with space use considerations and financial concerns, the network leaders were getting closer to a decision to nix the pool altogether.
Then tragedy struck.
On August 9, 2016, Katz-Dalsey Charter School rising third grade Jazier Tuten-Sewell was swimming at a family friend’s pool.
Jazir’s mother, Monique Tuten, said she was cleaning a barbecue grill in the backyard near the pool when her 4-year-old daughter ran over to her, telling her that Jazir would not come up from under the water, according to reports.
A family friend jumped in and pulled the unconscious child out then called 911 as Tuten, who is a nurse aide, administered CPR, getting her son to breathe.
The young boy never regained consciousness and died August 21, 2016, at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia after a series of seizures, according to Tuten. Through the Gift of Life organ donor program, Jazir’s death helped bring life to five other people.
The tragedy prompted Conway to work with his staff to expand the swimming program for all students.
“Jazir’s incident inspired a mission purpose,” Conway said.
The school began a mandatory swim program, but Conway wanted more.
“Now as part of our mission, aquatics is required as a lifelong skill of all of our students,” Conway said. “We made it a mandatory program, but a mandate is not a culture. There is a difference between a required program for swimming and a culture of swimming.”
That culture, Conway believes, has developed over the past several years that has culminated into the very first scholastic swim team in the city of Camden.
“We are proud our school will put a mark on what Camden has to offer,” Camden Academy Charter High School Principal Dara Ash said of the new swim team.
At a ceremony on December 5, Camden’s Charter School Network dedicated its swim program as the Jazir M. Tuten-Sewell Swim Program as it introduced the Camden Academy Charter High School’s new swim team.
“The program is named in memoriam after Jazir as he was the inspiration for the program being required,” Conway said. “Maybe we can find meaning in a meaningless incident.”
During the ceremony, Jazir’s mother, Monique Tuten, told the attendees how life changing the tragedy had been for her.
“I never want any parent to go through that,” she said tearfully.
She told the group how she even hesitated going to the dedication ceremony. “I didn’t want to come here,” she said. “But for [Jazir], it’s needed. I’m so grateful.”
As the swim team lined the side of the pool, Tuten told the swimmers that she will support them and try to make as many of the meets as she can.
“We’re going to do this for Jazir!” she yelled.