by Ari Robin McKenna
In early November, a big green trailer pulled up, parked, and disgorged dozens of blue kids’ bikes at Louisa Boren STEM K–8 (LB STEM) in West Seattle, the first of Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) 71 elementary schools that will benefit from the Let’s Go bike program this year.
For the next three weeks, third to fifth graders will learn everything they’ll need to know about how to bike to school by themselves. An SPS press release states, “In addition to the physical fundamentals of helmet safety, balancing, steering, pedaling, and stopping, Let’s Go teaches kids the rules of safe and courteous riding along with skills to cross a street at intersections.”
Cascade Bicycle Club — a statewide bicycle advocacy group whose many youth bike initiatives include the Major Taylor Project, Bike to School Month, riding and maintenance classes, and various summer camps — provides the curriculum for SPS’ physical education (PE) educators, who then utilize their relationships with their buildings’ students to make sure it lands.
Paul Tolmé, Cascade Bicycle Club’s media manager who pulled up at LB STEM on an e-bike to help unload the blue bikes, said, “Bicycles are just happiness, right? … As a child, learning to ride a bike is also this feeling of freedom and liberation. Suddenly you can explore a little further, you can learn your neighborhood.”
LB STEM PE teacher Tim Avery describes how he’ll begin preparing students for the freedom biking can provide. “Riding a bike around the city can be a little bit intimidating because you have to understand the traffic patterns and the crossing … and how to coexist with the cars on the public street … So we get the opportunity to simulate crosswalks, simulate exactly where you should look, what the hand signals are, and everything so the kids can feel safe.” Though initially nervous at the thought of commuting to school on their bikes, Avery marvels at how many of his students “cross that barrier” during the program and remarks, “That’s something that I’m excited to pass on to the kids.”
LB STEM Principal Ben Ostrom, a daily bike commuter himself, says he sees the educational benefits for students being twofold. First off, biking wakes students’ brains up. Ostrom also notices that it jump-starts their preparedness for school, and says, “For kids, the organizational piece of having to pull yourself together … There’s no doubt that you’re organizing yourself to start off the school day right and on the right foot. We would love to see more kids biking regularly.”
“And that’s gonna happen,” Lori S. Dunn, SPS K–12 physical education manager, chimes in. During her time in charge of physical education for SPS, Dunn has overseen the program as it’s grown from serving 33 schools — mostly in the north — to each and every elementary school in the SPS system learning from an aligned curriculum. The award-winning PE administrator says, “Let’s Go is especially impactful for students who would not otherwise have access to bicycles. It’s an equity initiative as well as foundational education and a life skills program.”
Soon, the program will expand. Let’s Go Further will take the curriculum through the end of eigth grade, beginning within three years.
Since inclusion is central to Dunn’s vision for the program, Let’s Go also ensures students with disabilities have access. Partnering with Outdoors for All, they are able to ensure that three-wheel, four-wheel, and hand-crank cycles are available to those who need them. Dunn mentions that Outdoors for All “comes about three weeks before [the program starts], measures the child [in need of assistive technology], sees what assistance they need. And then they’re part of the overall learning environment.”
While LB STEM has recently benefited from updated bike routes as part of the Delridge Paving Project, South End access issues remain which are beyond the scope of Dunn or SPS to address. Tolmé describes the problem as “a lack of safe bike infrastructure compared to other parts of the city … That’s a legacy that Cascade [Bicycle Club] is trying to help the city overcome, because everybody deserves a safe place to ride, not just affluent people.”
In an email to the Emerald, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) media lead Ethan Bergerson said, “Bike safety education is an important part of the puzzle, but it is also critical that we build safer routes to schools and other roads where it is safe for children to learn to ride. This is especially true in South Seattle where historical choices have led to gaps in our bike network and many roads that would benefit in safety improvements for people biking, walking, and rolling.”
Asked specifically about when better bike commutes will become available to South End’s students, Bergerson is able to point to a gamut of projects under way. “We have begun to build bike networks with the Columbian Way and Swift/Myrtle/Othello Protected Bike Lanes and the Rainier Valley Greenway. By the end of 2024, SDOT will have constructed the Martin Luther King Protected Bike Lane, the Georgetown to South Park Connection, [and] the Beacon Hill Beacon Bike Route as well as a host of neighborhood greenways connecting communities to schools.”
In the meantime, SDOT is awarding $1,000 mini-grants to communities that have ideas about how to improve safety around school buildings as part of their Safe Routes to School initiative. Also, parents and guardians without access to adequate resources can apply for a bicycle for their children at Bike Works’ Bikes-For-All program and can get helmets from Cascade Bicycle Club for $10.
After a 19-month pause due to COVID-19 that also saw kids’ bike sales increase by 100% nationwide, Let’s Go resumes enabling bicycle commuters in an altered context. With much-needed improvements in the South End hopefully providing additional viability, schools may find their bike racks filling up after all.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured Image: A Louisa Boren STEM K–8 elementary school student at their first bike safety lesson. (Photo: Teresa Scribner, SPS)
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