Placing Cycling on the Curriculum: Thaden School
It’s back-to-school time and we’re highlighting how our Bicycle Friendly America awardees and other partners in making biking better are gearing up to get students and their parents driving less and biking more to school and around their communities.
Did you know schools can be designated Bicycle Friendly Businesses (BFBs)? In fact, there are 13 schools currently in the BFB program, ranging from elementary to middle to high school, as well as private or independent K-12 schools. (Universities and colleges are awarded through our Bicycle Friendly University program!) Meet Thaden School, an independent school in Bentonville, Arkansas, which educates 6th through 12th graders and was recently promoted to Gold-level status in our Spring 2022 round of BFB awards.
Bicycles are a powerful tool for empowering and engaging youth and we love to see schools putting cycling on the curriculum! Thaden offers bike education year-round through its “Wheels” program where students learn how to ride bikes, work on bikes, design bikes, and, eventually, how to fabricate their own bicycles and bicycle accessories. Students also learn how to ride in a variety of styles and environments, including on city streets and a mountain bike skills course, as well as learn how to use bicycles to address social justice issues and become positive change-makers in their communities.
In 2020, Thaden unveiled a building dedicated to the “Wheels” program, which houses traditional classrooms as well as bike-centric spaces, including a bicycle lab and repair area, secure indoor bike storage, digital fabrication lab and fit bikes (bike-like contraptions used to determine someone’s ideal measurements for a bike). The bicycle lab includes eight work stands, numerous complete toolkits, compressors and air hoses, parts-wash stations and brazing equipment — all used by students.
This is the kind of hands-on experience youth biking and walking groups are calling for. When we asked the Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians (ASAP) what could be done to involve more youth in bike advocacy here’s what they had to say: “creating more programs where youth can have hands-on experience, such as Free Bikes 4 Kidz where youth are working on repairing bicycles and are helping those who need bikes get them at no charge. When kids can see the impact of their work and advocacy it keeps them engaged, connected to the community and to the work. It gives them a sense of control and empowerment.”
In addition to teaching students how to fix and ride bikes, Thaden offers bicycle-specific courses that are designed to give students hands-on experience in bicycle advocacy. In fact, a few students of the “Bicycle Advocacy” course helped fill out Thaden’s Spring 2022 Bicycle Friendly Business application!
To learn more about Thaden, the “Wheels” program and how Thaden students get involved in the BFB application process, we interviewed Thaden’s cycle education specialist Sam Slaton. Sam has been involved in bike advocacy for many years as a staff member of Bike New York, board member of ETHIC/Trailblazers, volunteer for Transportation Alternatives, member of the Youth Bike Summit steering committee, and frequent National Bike Summit attendee. He now strives to pass on what he has learned to his students.
What does being a Bicycle Friendly Business mean to the Thaden School?
In 2019, we received Silver-level designation as a Bicycle Friendly Business. This year, we got Gold. This honor means we’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go. And even when we receive Platinum—I’m optimistic that we will—it won’t mean we’ve arrived. As a school, we can always find new ways to be more accommodating for people who ride bikes, including partnering with other schools to help them along in their journey, working with the city and county to identify and optimize safe routes to school, hosting community events to increase outreach and advocating for greater bike infrastructure connectivity across the region for people of all ages and abilities. As a teacher, I feel the way I always feel when students see their efforts pay off in the real world: proud, energized and excited.
Why did you decide to involve students in the BFB application process?
These students were a part of my “Bicycle Advocacy” class, so it was natural to involve them. I explained to them that working through the application process was in itself a form of advocacy and a way to improve their own skills. Asking questions, solving problems, building relationships, gathering data, working together in service of a common goal, etc. are all skills practiced by being involved in the application process and are necessary to learn how to bring about change, regardless of the cause in which they’d like to direct that change. I’m also a big believer in the power of authentic learning experiences. Everyone wants to feel like their work matters and that they can have an impact on the world. Young people are no different.
Walk us through Thaden’s BFB application process.
I shared the opportunity with the students in my bike advocacy class and a trio volunteered to take on the job while their peers worked on other student-driven projects. They were then responsible for handling every aspect of the application, from start to finish. They gathered information, interviewed key stakeholders (including my fellow (former) cycle education specialist, Scott Fitzgerald, and Lisa Herschbach, our executive director of community relations), synthesized their findings, and crafted responses—the whole shebang. I simply advised along the way and came in at the end to check their work and hit “submit.” It was incredible to see them take ownership of the project.
BFA Application Tip: Make sure everyone who has a stake in bicycling is involved in your business, community, or university’s application process. The online application includes a ‘Collaborator’ function so that multiple users can access and edit the form, and you can also download a PDF version of the form in-progress to share with others for their input and approval.
How has bike culture at Thaden changed since the “Wheels” building opened?
The Wheels lab has provided a place for bike culture at Thaden to put down roots. Over the years, evidence of student learning has accreted, adding character, depth, and a sense of history to the space. Kids have customized their workbenches and there are unfinished art projects made with spare parts sitting alongside bikes donated by alumni to be fixed up and sent back out into the community. It’s really coming full circle and we’re just getting started. We want to make the Wheels workshop not just a place for our bike culture to thrive, but for Northwest Arkansas’ bike culture to find new footing as well.
What are some of the social justice issues addressed through the Wheels Program?
We often say that the bicycle is a simple solution to some of the world’s most complex problems. Students were tasked with identifying social issues they care about and then collaboratively designing projects and programs that would use bicycles to address those issues. They have designed a casual teen ride series meant to raise awareness about rising rates of mental health issues among young people, developed a mobile food pantry program that would use cargo bikes to deliver meals to homebound people facing food insecurity, created a program that would provide donated bikes and beginner routes to court-involved youth in an effort to decrease rates of recidivism, and sketched out a plan for a demo event for adaptive bicycles. There’s no end to their creativity and passion for justice.
What would you advise folks who would like to secure BFB status for their school?
I volunteer myself ([email protected]) as a resource since I’ve guided Thaden through this process twice! I would also emphasize the importance of generating buy-in from school leadership. Clayton Marsh, our head of school, has always been a vocal champion of bicycling, as have our funders (the Walton Family Foundation), so we have had a relatively easy road toward becoming more bike-friendly.
If buy-in does not already exist at a school, I can’t overstate the value of what my friend Ryan Hale (CEO of LaneShift) calls “empathy rides”—gathering everyone at your school or in your community who has a stake in bicycling, and who might not be supportive, and taking them for low-stakes bike rides to and from campus to get a sense of what that kind of trip is like for kids, teachers, and parents, and more importantly, to help them see what that trip could be like if there were better infrastructure and better end-of-trip facilities.
If you would like to see your school or business earn the League’s Bicycle Friendly Business designation, apply today at apply.bikeleague.org or learn more at bikeleague.org/business. Applications for our fall round of BFB awards are due by November 3, 2022, at 11:59 pm PT.