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Oceano Elementary School: Bicycle Friendly Business
This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 Bicycle Friendly America magazine. The next application deadline for the Bicycle Friendly Business program is February 15. To learn more about the program and to apply, go to bikeleague.org/business.
Oceano Elementary School was honored this year as the only school designated as a Gold level Bicycle Friendly Business in the United States. The League asked us to share some stories on why we received this important recognition.
Oceano Elementary School is located on the Central Coast of California. The school has 450 students, 85% of which are of Hispanic heritage. The families of Oceano are the backbone of the community. Many are hardworking people toiling in the fields, cleaning local hotels and laboring at construction jobs. Their efforts keep our economy humming.
The journey towards developing our current bike culture started 10 years ago. As any teacher knows, student interest in different recreational activities goes in cycles. One year it is marbles. The next year it is scooters, and this year it was fidget spinners. Ten years ago, the “in” thing at Oceano became bikes. We had ditched our bike racks many years before. No one complained because no one rode a bike (except one teacher who stored it in his classroom). When a group of boys decided they wanted to ride bikes to school, there was no place to store them. The boys asked the teacher who also biked if they could keep their bikes in his classroom for safe keeping. With zero bike infrastructure at school the answer was “yes.” Soon there were 15 bikes stored in the class along with 30 student desks and 30 students who were there to learn.
As one could well imagine, moving around the classroom became extremely difficult, but at Oceano we promote any activity that is positive and healthy for students. Having an interest in bikes is a lot better than trading Pokémon cards or arguing over marbles. It didn’t take long for the principal to recognize the need for purchasing some bike racks. Then came the inevitable need to start fixing bikes as they broke. Fortunately, we had a custodian who enjoyed working with students and was willing to multitask as students brought their broken bikes to him at recess.
At this point it is important to state that many good things happen at schools when principals empower students and staff. The power of “yes” goes a long way toward making schools an exciting place to be. Fortunately, we have had great principals that say “yes.” Our principal at the time, Tom Butler, saw a lot of positive energy circulating around bikes that year. When Rideshare, a local governmental organization, offered seed money from their Safe Routes grant to help us promote bikes, we jumped at the chance. Hence was born the Oceano Bike Posse. Staff wanted to show 6th graders how to ride safely to their middle school. Mr. Butler said “yes” to a couple of teachers leading interested students on a bike ride to their new school. Most principals would look at this activity as being dangerous, and worry about liability, but not our principals. They see bike riding as a safe form of transportation and riding had the potential to be a valuable teaching tool. Because there was an ice cream shop on the way to the middle school, we had to stop and get a little ice cream. We rode seven miles that day, and the students loved it. It was so successful, students pestered staff to do more rides. The Oceano Bike Posse has been riding to get ice cream twice a month, on girls and boys rides, ever since. We have even had several family rides on weekends to show parents the positive nature of riding a bike.
Over time, with the support of our principals, the staff of Oceano has tried to keep the enthusiasm for cycling alive by looking for and jumping on opportunities as they arrive. When a staff member saw a cycle training course 3 years ago while on vacation in Italy and emailed a picture of it to then principal Ron Walton, Oceano’s very own cycle training course was soon installed with four-way stops, yield signs and even a roundabout. From there our state award-winning PE instructor, Kim Shrode, capitalized on the new infrastructure to start bike safety instruction during PE on our monthly Bike to School Days. PE instruction includes a bike license test in 5th grade that covers the rights and responsibilities of a bicyclist and tests basic maintenance skills, such as inflating tires on our outdoor bike work station.
Other opportunities arrive in the form of partnerships with various organizations. Oceano has partnered with Rideshare and their Safe Routes to School program for years to help fund our monthly Walk to School Days and separate Bike to School Days. Our partnership with Project Hero, an organization that helps wounded veterans rehabilitate through cycling, is one of the most meaningful activities the school does all year. In addition to working with veterans, Oceano has partnered with national celebrities such as Mr. Eco and Erin Inglish to celebrate biking by being filmed in some of their music videos. The school has also partnered with the county jail on a program that collects old bikes and inmates make them new again. Some of those refurbished bikes are given to the students of Oceano who do not have bikes. We have individuals that donate bikes that would have been sent to the dumpster. These bikes are placed on a lawn in front of a classroom with tools and some Simple Green. Students then clean, try to fix or just dismantle the bikes for parts before or after school and during their recesses. Through these efforts we have collected 15 loaner bikes that are used on Posse rides or during PE. By being aware of cycling opportunities, Oceano has been able to promote bicycling as a fun and safe activity.
Having a bike culture means that we easily bring cycling into the curriculum. Wheels on a bike have a radius and diameter which is part of the math curriculum. One of our favorite articles is from Bicycling magazine called: How Cycling Makes You Smarter and Happier. Readings like this are part of the science curriculum. When students calculate the monetary difference between riding a bike and driving a car, that involves adding and multiplying decimals, another math concept. Our partnership with SRAM and World Bicycle Relief helps students understand geography through studying about the countries where their fundraising efforts will go. Our field trip to the SRAM Research and Development facility shows students how math and science are applied in the workplace. When students write to local city council members advocating for better bike infrastructure (protected bike lanes and intersections), that becomes part of the Language Arts curriculum with a lesson in American Civics. These are just a few of the academic applications that are brought into the classroom through bicycling.
Oceano would love to say we have turned our streets into Copenhagen, but change comes slow. On any given day, we have 30 to 40 students ride to school (50% of the students are walkers), but the introduction of cycling to Oceano has made the perception of our school and community better in the eyes of our neighbors. When citizens of nearby towns see a dedicated staff member such as the amazing Ann Dreizler riding in her pajamas in celebration of Dr. Seuss’s birthday with 40 Oceano students to get ice cream, they can’t help but smile and wave. Those same waving citizens now come to Oceano on weekends to use the bike training course. Not only do they use our bike training course, but other schools in the county are installing them and trying to replicate the Oceano bike safety training PE courses. When our Safe Routes Coordinator attends local city council meetings advocating for safer streets, the first words from those city council members are how they saw Posse students smiling and riding their bikes. The Oceano students have become the ultimate bike ambassadors.
At Oceano Elementary School we have a motto: Give students a reason to come to school. Bicycling has enabled the staff to bring excitement to our school. In the long run, it has made for a happier and healthier school environment. There is no magic at Oceano. Any school can create what we do. The more schools that incorporate the lessons of Oceano, the better their communities will be.
Jim DeCecco is a longtime teacher and bike commuter at Oceano Elementary School.