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My Coast Guard
Commentary | June 17, 2024

Learn how the Coast Guard’s Partnership In Education Program can save students’ lives

By Edward Stoker, Civil Rights Directorate, U.S. Coast Guard

Capt. Kelly K. Denning, the commanding officer of Sector New Orleans, was first introduced to the Coast Guard’s Partnership in Education (PIE) Program more than 20 years ago as a junior commanding officer on the Coast Guard Cutter Stingray in Mobile, Alabama. 

The PIE Program unites the Coast Guard family with local schools and communities through opportunities to work directly with students, which enhances educational opportunities and raises awareness about the service’s missions, including ensuring water safety. All local PIE Programs are command-sponsored, volunteer-driven, and partnership-based. 

As a junior officer, PIE was a great opportunity for Denning to visit local elementary schools to help educate students by reading and discussing books. As she recalls, Superfudge by Judy Blume was a big hit!  

After leaving her duty station in Mobile and remembering the impact that the PIE program had on her, her unit, and the students she helped, Denning kept this tradition alive when she would later discover how to best reactivate the PIE Program in New Orleans. 

After taking command of Sector New Orleans, reinvigorating the PIE Program had to be put on pause. Two weeks into her new command, she had to surmount a search and rescue (SAR) case where two high school students and one elementary student died in the Mississippi River, and not all the bodies were found. 

“It was rough notifying next of kin,” said Denning. “One family lost two beautiful and bright daughters and the other family lost their extremely talented son. Every day, for almost a month, driving to or from work brought tears to my eyes as I drove by the schools of those students, who may not have lost their lives had they understood the dangers of the river.” 

According to the Center for Disease Control, across the United States, 11 fatal drownings occur every day on average. A competitive swimmer both in the pool and in open water, Denning’s first job as a teen before joining the Coast Guard was as a swim instructor and lifeguard. She has maintained throughout her career a passion for water safety and a desire for everyone, no matter their economic status, to learn how to swim or at a minimum learn about water safety. 

In 2022 when the State of Louisiana passed legislation mandating water safety education in public schools, Denning decided to reactivate the local PIE Program in Sector New Orleans to help schools meet the new requirements of educating students on water safety. With the help of her deputy, outreach coordinator and PIE coordinator, Denning’s vision was quickly developed into a reality. 

During the 2022-2023 PIE Program year for Sector New Orleans, 32 Coast Guard members volunteered 240 hours delivering water safety education to 880 students in just one Louisiana parish school system. This work was made possible through command support, the establishment of standard operating procedures, and effective coordination of smaller units with limited crews and competing operational priorities. 

Beyond Sector New Orleans, units that helped educate students on water safety included Station New Orleans, ANT New Orleans, ANT Venice, MSST New Orleans, Base New Orleans, Gulf Regional Fisheries Training Center, CGC Axe, CGC Pamlico, and the MC-20 Incident Management Team.  

For their work, Sector New Orleans was recognized in 2023 among Coast Guard units with more than 100 personnel with a PIE Best Collaborative Unit Award for successfully collaborating with other Coast Guard units to support the education of students in multiple schools during the previous program year. Every year, one large unit (over 100 personnel) and one small Coast Guard unit (up to 100 personnel) are recognized with a Best Collaborative Unit Award for successfully collaborating with other units to support the education of students in one or more schools during the previous program year. To learn about all PIE Awards and the 2023 award winners, visit the PIE Awards section on the PIE Program page

According to Denning, “The benefits of the PIE Program are many. Although Sector New Orleans is one of the busiest units in the Coast Guard, we have made community outreach and engagement through the PIE Program a command priority. By teaching students water safety, we save lives as well as improve community relations, promote work/life balance, serve as role models for students which positively impacts recruitment, and provide rewarding experiences for our personnel by allowing them to volunteer and make a difference in our communities.” 

Denning, who will be retiring this month, said, “Working with schools to educate students on water safety is the initiative that I am most proud of during my time in command. If you are the C.O. of a Coast Guard unit, I encourage you to consider how your unit can make a difference through the PIE Program.” 

Currently, for the 2023 – 2024 PIE program year, 1,992 volunteers from 206 Coast Guard units have volunteered 5,614 hours to support students in 329 schools across the country. To get involved in the PIE Program during the 2024 – 2025 program year, starting in August, email Edward Stoker at

PIE Program thanks Capt. Denning for all her career accomplishments including her contributions to the PIE Program and congratulates her on her retirement. 

This is the first PIE article in a two-part series.  Stay tuned for part two!