Faculty + Staff

Staffer's film focuses on aspirations of Latina high school swimmers

Water polo team overcomes great odds to compete in their sport

'Out of the Shallow End'
Laurie Russman

Laurie Russman's 'Out of the Shallow End' follows Latina students at Santa Ana Valley High School who successfully compete in athletics while staying on track to graduation and college.

“Out of the Shallow End,” a documentary film about the academic aspirations of Latina high school students that was directed and produced by UCLA staff member and alumna Laurie Russman, was recently screened as part of UCLA’s “MFA Directors Spotlight” event at the Directors Guild of America.

An M.F.A. graduate from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, Russman has served as coordinator since 2007 of the UCLA Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The film, which Russman created as her M.F.A. thesis, focuses on the great odds that the girls water polo team at Santa Ana Valley High School overcame to compete in their sport while also staying on a path to graduation and college. Russman was inspired to create a documentary after she learned that large numbers of children and youth who are members of minority groups often don’t even know how to swim, let alone compete in athletics. A study funded by USA Swimming, the governing body of competitive swimming in the nation, found, for example, that while four out of 10 white children don’t know how to swim, six out of 10 Latina/o, and seven out of 10 African American children do not know how to swim.

“This was shocking to me,” says Russman. “I was always an avid swimmer and, as a kid, rode my bike every summer day to the public pool in my community. The pool has always been a favorite place for recreation, where I go to exercise, and cool off.”

Russman did research into the social history of swimming pools and segregation in the U.S.

“I wanted to understand how a city like Los Angeles, next to a vast ocean, with a plethora of pools, could accept that a great majority of its kids couldn’t participate safely or competitively in aquatics,” says Russman. “Moreover, I wanted to know what was being done to change this.”

Her film explores this through the aquatics program at Santa Ana Valley High, where the students who join the school’s water polo and swim teams are 97 percent low-income and 97 percent Latina/o. According to their coach, one student in 50 knows how to swim when they join the program.

“What’s distinctive about Santa Ana Valley High is that it encourages students to get involved with extra-curricular programs regardless of skill level, and anyone who wants to join aquatics is accepted,” notes Russman.

In her work as coordinator for UCLA’s Civil Rights Project (CRP), Russman supports the center’s research on equity, access and justice in the nation’s public schools. In 2013, the CRP conducted a study titled “Making Education Work for Latinas” that looked at what “levers” improve educational outcomes for Latinas; Russman created a video for that study.

While filming “Out of the Shallow End,” Russman recognized that many of the same findings from the CRP study — that factors like exposure to peers with college aspirations, retaining the ability to speak Spanish and involvement in extracurricular activities contribute to student success — were also important for the educational trajectories of the girls in her film. Most of the Santa Ana school's water polo team members, almost all children of low-income Latino immigrants, will be first in their families to graduate high school and to enroll at four-year campuses.

“My work at CRP was ever-present while making my thesis, constantly informing what I chose to film at Valley High and how I eventually shaped the story,” says Russman. “I came away from this project with a broader awareness on disparities in swimming. Not all families have the ability to prioritize swimming lessons, since many are focused on daily challenges, like making the rent.

"This is why we need to involve the schools as part of the solution," she says. "I was very moved by the commitment and resolve of Valley High’s coaches and student athletes, and I hope my audience will be, too.”

This story was originally published in Ampersand, the news magazine of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

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