It’s a Tuesday afternoon at the Roxbury YMCA. Like many kids their age, these students from nearby Trotter Elementary are getting ready for some after-school fun and for them, that means swimming.

But there’s a big current this class is trying to swim against: More than half of them and other first-through-third graders at Trotter don’t know how to swim.

It’s why Roxbury Y interim director Kathryn Saunders and others are trying to help them from becoming another drowning casualty.

"Our biggest motivation was the statistics that really say that African-American and Latino children drown at a much higher percentage," Saunders said. "We wanted to make sure, as much as we can, kids are going to be drown-proof. That’s one of the terms that we start to use as they progress through swim lessons, but also they feel comfortable around the water. They feel comfortable on a boat. They feel comfortable being around large bodies of water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, African-American children drown at a rate almost three times that of white and Latino children.

So, this past winter, the YMCA of Greater Boston launched the Urban Swim Program. The Roxbury Y, along with the YMCA in Dorchester, work with nearby schools to provide free lessons to more than 250 children.

"We really wanted to partner with the schools, so that the kids we got in the program not only swam on their own, which would benefit their family, but also could come over as a cohort," Saunders said. "So, they come over as a group, they learn how to swim as a group, and then hopefully they have more fun as a group."

Locally, the Urban Swim Program is just the latest effort to try and tackle the swimming gap between African-American kids and other children.

But Saunders says she believes the Y program also tackles other, smaller obstacles.

"By getting the kids in after school time, the parents can pick those kids up right after school, but they didn’t necessarily have to bring the kids here," she said. "So, for us, it took the obstacle of parent transportation and parents having to get off work. And then of course the cost. We offered this free to anyone who wanted to participate and we targeted the one-through-third graders, but it really is taking away the barrier of having to pay for the class at all."

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, black children were a quarter of all child drownings between 2006 and 2010 – that’s despite the fact that they’re only around 8.5 percent of the state’s child population.

Racial disparities in swimming trace back to segregation, when African-Americans weren’t allowed at many public and private pools.

University of Montana professor Jeff Wiltse has long studied the social history of swimming in the United States. He points out that prior to the '20s and '30s, segregation in public pools was more likely to be along the lines of sex and class, not race. This shifted with changing attitudes about sex, and as immigrant whites moved up the economic ladder.

"In the 1920s and '30s, swimming became broadly popular, and swimming knowledge became widely disseminated among whites, precisely because they had access to these thousands of pools that were being built, but it did not become popularized among black Americans because they were largely denied access to these pools," Wiltse said.

The increased racial segregation of pools during this period took place as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal spent $750 million on recreation facilities, which included thousands of new public pools. Ironically, the goal of the effort was to democratize access to recreation.

But today, Wiltse says disparities have more to do with another familiar issue: class.

"Well-to-do districts and suburban school districts tend to be able to provide swimming pools and swimming instructions more so than poor districts and poor schools," he said. "Similarly, well-to-do suburban neighborhoods, plentiful access to swimming pools – both private club pools and, increasingly over the last 10-to-15-to-20 years, suburban neighborhoods have also been building public pools. In cities, especially poor areas of cities, pools have been being closed down over the last several decades. And the closing of urban pools actually accelerated, not surprisingly, in 2008, 2009, 2010, when we went through the recent economic recession."

Since at least the late 1980s, only one new municipal pool has opened in Boston. And the issue of class is hard to ignore at Trotter Elementary, where over 80 percent of students are considered low income.

That’s one reason why parent Dionne Jones says the free program at the Roxbury Y is a big help to all families, especially those where not knowing how to swim can extend to parents and grandparents.

"It gives their kids an opportunity to be exposed to the water, and a lot of these children are in summer programs, so it’s awesome that they get a chance to be in the pool before the summer and maybe have a little bit more fun," Jones said.

It’s not the first time Jones’s six-year-old daughter Devyn has been in the pool. In fact, Jones also raised her two older daughters not to be afraid of the water. Both went on to become lifeguards.

"My mother was afraid to swim, so she made sure that my brother and I were able to swim, so I grew up in the pool," she said.

Lifeguard Qualiah Johnson says such fear still lingers in many children and families.

"I see the fear in them, but once you assure them that everything’s gonna be ok, ‘I’m right here with you, we can do it together if you want, you know,’ that’s what I tell the kids after that, by the time we’re halfway done, they’re like, 'let me do it by myself,' because they know I’m right there and I’m not going to leave them or I’m not going to let nothing happen to them," Johnson said.

It was at the Roxbury Y that the 21-year-old Johnson learned how to swim when she was a child herself. Yet she’s also a rarity among local lifeguards. Out of the more than 300 lifeguards that the Y of Greater Boston employs, only 30 are African-American. The Red Cross – the top group nationally when it comes to lifeguard training – doesn’t track the race of lifeguards that it certifies.

"I’m now teaching the counselors' and my mentors' – that were my mentors – I’m now teaching their children, so it’s like a chain," she said.

And such a chain of community is key to closing the swimming gap, says Wiltse.

"The solution to the problem is having facilities available for people that they want to go to, and they want to go to time after time after time during the summer," he said. "That’s how swimming’s gonna become popular. That’s how knowledge of swimming is going to be spread more broadly than it is today – not simply saying, 'All right, we’re gonna give you a program of four swimming lessons, but then after you’re done with these swimming lessons, we’re not really gonna have an appealing place for you to go to swim.'"

Wiltse adds that more government spending for public recreation facilities would also go a long way in fixing the problem, but says that in today’s political and economic environment, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

As for the Urban Swim Program, talks are still ongoing about extending it for the fall.

Classes would be open to new students, but still target younger children, such as the ones from Trotter. Organizers believe there’s less fear in the younger kids – and that makes them more primed to enjoy the water.