NEWPORT BEACH — Students at Newport Elementary watch the waves during recess, the school’s blacktop surrounded by sand. Many look forward to the weekend when they can jump into the water.
Now, they don’t have to wait.
This year, kids at the Balboa Peninsula campus can enroll in what may be the first elementary school surfing class in the nation. As soon as the last bell rings, kids and after-school instructors walk along the boardwalk to the Newport Pier, where waves roll gently into shore. It’s a scene only in Southern California.
“I’m not afraid of anything out in the ocean,” Matthew Dehdashtian, 10, said cooly, brushing his sandy blond mop out of his eyes as he readied his wetsuit Wednesday.
The waves were bigger than usual — taller than some of the kids — and the water was brisk. About 20 beginners jumped, yelled and threw sand, some asking, “Can we go yet?” One girl balanced her bright yellow foam board on the stump of a wooden pier piling.
The head instructor, Amy Lowry, 26, is a Newport El alumna. She remembers kicking soccer balls onto the sand so she could chase them into the water.
“I think we have always needed a surf class here,” she said.
Organized by the city’s recreation department and a local surf camp, the eight-week class is a first for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Before, Newport El offered typical after-school fare: math lessons, art and language classes.
But this year, city officials approached administrators and said they could connect them with other youth programs. The city handles insurance, registration, advertisement, payments and conducts background checks on instructors.
This fall, 42 students enrolled and are divided into three groups: the all-girls “Mermaids,” the coed beginner “Soul Surfers” and the coed advanced “Mavericks.” Lessons last for two hours and include on-the-sand instruction. Swimming ability is the only prerequisite.
Parents have given the lessons high marks so far.
Jim Chalupnik, 44, owns the PureGlass surfboard factory in Costa Mesa and came to watch his 5-year-old daughter Ryan, a kindergartner.
Her lips stained from a purple Popsicle, Ryan seemed to just enjoy being at the beach.
“Even if she’s not standing up, I like her getting used to the water,” said Chalupnik, who wants to someday take family surfing trips to Bali.
Surfing among young children has surged in popularity recently, said Peter “PT” Townend, the former USA Surf Team coach and world champion. Families are now raising third- and fourth-generation surfers, he said.
“It has become the alternative to sticks and ball,” Townend said, adding that the age 10-and-younger category is the fasting growing group in the National Scholastic Surfing Assn.
He said he knew of no other elementary school surfing classes.
Lowry, who is also the coach of the Newport Harbor High School surf team, wants to groom future competitors. Her advanced elementary students learn contest strategies and surfboard design. At the end of the year, they’ll have a friendly contest.
Beginners, though, were just enjoying the water and the sensation of gliding on the waves Wednesday. As they rode the waves in to the sand, they celebrated their rides — some threw both arms overhead and one boy kept giving the Hawaiian “shaka” hand sign.
Not many kids get this chance, said Chalupnik, and most don’t realize how good they have it.
“Even if you tell them it doesn’t sink in,” he said.