School Principal Steers a Culture of Cycling with Bike Safety and BMX Trails

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In 2009 Douglas Johnson, the new principal at Mountlake Terrace Elementary School in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. (10.5% Latino), realized the enormity of physical inactivity and obesity in his community.

Latino kids lack safe, quality opportunities for physical activity, which heightens their risk for obesity and disease.

Safe biking opportunities provide one avenue to improve the situation.

Johnson and other leaders at Mountlake Terrace started taking advantage of existing opportunities offered by local cycling clubs.

Soon, they began creating their opportunities and helped bring new bikes, helmets, and a brand-new bike trail to the school to expand students’ ability to get the physical activity they need to stay healthy.

Kids Aren’t Playing Enough

In 2009 Douglas Johnson, the new principal at Mountlake Terrace Elementary School in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. (10.5% Latino), realized the enormity of physical inactivity and obesity in his community. Kids were sitting indoors more and missing out on the health and academic benefits of being physically active, especially riding a bicycle. Many kids at the school didn’t have a bicycle or even know how to ride one.

Also, in general, bicycle injuries and accident rates are highest among the elementary-school age group.

Johnson remembered being very physically active as a kid, especially on his bike. He knew that many kids living in disadvantaged neighborhoods didn’t have access to physical activity programs or safe places to play outside or ride their bikes.

As an avid cyclist, Johnson was familiar with the benefits of physical activity. More importantly, he trusted and supported the fitness leaders in his school district.

Jennifer Hershey, the P.E. teacher at Mountlake Terrace, was a primary fitness leader in the Edmonds School District. Hershey spoke with Johnson about physical activity and how it leads to improved academics in addition to the health benefits. They both agreed that they wanted to help kids be more physically active.

While brainstorming solutions, they relied on Hershey’s years of experience as a P.E. teacher and reached out to other P.E. teachers in the district. They also recalled the activities they enjoyed doing as kids and discovered that kids just didn’t have as many opportunities throughout the day for physical activity.

“As kids get older, they have less and less time for physical activity in school,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Hershey identified four problems: (1) kids miss out on physical activity at recess as they often don’t know the rules to games they want to play, or they lack the organization to play them; (2) kids miss out on physical activity during school because more time is dedicated to academic curriculum; (3) kids miss out on walking and biking to school due to a lack of support or safe routes; and (4) kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods miss out on physical activity after school due to financial and transportation barriers.

Schools in the Edmonds School District serve a diverse population, ranging from 2.7% living in poverty to 21.05% living in poverty, and from 0.65% Hispanic to 22.75% Hispanic. At Mountlake Terrace Elementary, there are 27 different languages spoken by students.

Johnson and Hershey’s dream was to provide free physical activity opportunities before, during, and after school to create a culture of physical activity for the entire community.

However, they knew they needed to start at school during the school day because this reduced financial and transportation barriers, allowing all students the opportunity to participate.

Hershey asked: “How can we have it so every kid in the school is physically active at multiple times during the school day?”

Start With Recess

In addition to Johnson’s eagerness to increase kids’ participation in physical activity, and Hershey’s P.E. expertise, they had several other factors on their side.

First, Johnson, as the school principal, had the authority to implement any changes they decided to make. Second, they already had the support of other fitness leaders in the school district. Third, influential stakeholders in the community had already begun to mobilize around biking.

In 2009, Johnson’s first idea to increase physical activity during school was small and fairly easy to implement. He wanted to provide the opportunity for structured activity during recess.

“It’s not that our recess was that bad before, but kids were sitting around more because they didn’t know how to play games, and there were more behavior problems,” Johnson said.

Pump Track
Homerun Pump Track in Salida, Colorado in 2010.
Source: Arrowheadtrails.com

Johnson met with Richard Hollingshead, a Mountlake Terrace paraeducator, to discuss his idea of a “recess coach.” Hollingshead agreed with the concept of structured recess, and his role was immediately restructured. Rather than simply monitoring kids, the recess coach would teach and play games with the kids in a more organized manner.

This small modification to recess was the catalyst that led to numerous innovative and more complex improvements at the school in the name of physical activity.

Bring Bike Education To School

In 2010, their first bicycle-related opportunity came along.

Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club partnered with Edmonds Bicycle Advocacy Group (EBAG) and the Edmonds School District to donate 30 bicycles and deliver their bicycle safety classes to teach students how to use hand signals, scan over their shoulder, dodge potholes, and stop and look both ways.

The club would bring the bikes to Edmonds’ schools and train P.E. teachers to give six-week bicycle safety education classes.

Edmonds School District asked local principals and P.E. teachers if they wanted to participate.

Johnson and Hershey eagerly said “yes” and Mountlake Terrace Elementary was the first school in Edmonds to host the Cascade Bicycle Club bicycle safety education classes. Students, parents, and teachers loved the classes and wanted them more often and in more schools, Johnson said.

Grant Opportunity

Another bicycling opportunity arose later in 2010.

A Mountlake Terrace city employee asked Johnson to team up for a statewide “Safe Routes to School” grant, and Johnson and Hershey again eagerly said “yes.” The grant called for two components: environmental and educational.

For the environmental component, Johnson and Hershey worked with the city planners, transportation engineers, and the school district to identify structural barriers to walking and biking to school. They decided to apply to build a sidewalk in front of the school to provide kids a safe route to walk or bike to school.

For the educational component, Johnson and Hershey worked with EBAG and the Cascade Bicycle Club and proposed to expand the bicycle safety education program to reach all 3rd-5th-graders in Edmonds’ schools, and they decided to include additional items specifically for Mountlake Terrace Elementary.

MTE Bicycles
Mountlake Terrace Elementary’s new bikes.
Source: Doug Johnson

The group received a Safe Routes to School grant of $330,304 in 2011 for multiple components of the grant: (1) the Cascade Bicycling Club “Basics of Bicycling” bike safety education classes for all Edmonds schools; (2) additional bikes and trailers to be transported to the schools; (3) street and sidewalk improvements and traffic monitoring at Mountlake Terrace; (4) a stock of 40 new bikes, scooters, and helmets for Mountlake Terrace; and (5) twice-annual bike rodeos, and a bike safety event for the Mountlake Terrace community.

By July 2012, the 4,000-plus students at all 13 Edmonds School District elementary schools had completed the Basics of Bicycling class, the district reported, according to Edmonds School District.

During this time, Hershey and another Edmonds School District P.E. teacher, Jennifer McCloughan, developed a before/after school physical activity program called Move 60 to keep students active for a full 60 minutes four days per week. Carli Brockman took over as the new P.E. teacher at Mountlake Terrace when Hershey took an expanded role in the Move 60 program.

Johnson and Brockman brainstormed what they could do next. They wanted to see kids riding bikes to and from school, after school, and even at school.

What if kids could bike at recess?

They decided to start allowing and encouraging kids to ride bikes during recess. They would even check out the school bikes during recess for kids that didn’t have them or didn’t ride their bikes to school that day.

The bike racks at Mountlake Terrace began to fill up. Johnson and Brockman quickly realized that they needed more space for kids to ride and develop more skills.

Build Trails on School Grounds

Google Earth bike trails
Satellite view of Mountlake Terrace Elementary.
Source: Google Earth

In late 2013, Johnson and Brockman decided to build bike trails on the school grounds.

By this point, bicycle education had been part of the Mountlake Terrace school and community for almost three years, so it was fairly easy to rally volunteers to support the idea of bike trails on school grounds. Johnson and Brockman spread the word and distributed flyers asking for volunteers to help build some trails.

The school had about 200 square feet available for Johnson and Brockman to design the trails.

In spring 2014, Johnson rented a sod cutter, and a group of volunteer parents, teachers, and community members helped him and Brockman cut and remove sod and lay dirt for the trails.

“You have to be willing to throw yourself into something,” Brockman said. “If you’re not willing to try it, it will never happen.”

Kids Biking and Walking More at School

Students loved riding at recess, Johnson said.

Brockman started a new Wheels Club to continue encouraging kids to ride by tracking their mileage.

In the fall of 2014, the rainy season in Seattle, the trails were too muddy to ride due to drainage issues, so Brockman developed the Mileage Club to supplement the Wheels Club during the rainy season. Kids could walk or run to build up miles for the Mileage Club.

“It’s not like we had the idea of bike trails in the beginning, but as the idea evolves, we are able to see the next step and go for it,” Johnson said.

The bikes, bicycle safety education classes, and bike trails are provided at school and during school so that all students can participate.

When schools provide structured activity and necessary equipment during the school day, they reduce accessibility barriers associated with cost and transportation-barriers that disproportionately burden kids living low-income or Latino communities-to increase kids’ opportunity to participate in physical activity.

“If it’s during school, all kids can participate in all of the programs,” Hollingshead said.

“The more kids move the better learners they are and the more their brains are ready to gear on,” Brockman said.

New School Plans

Johnson and Brockman discovered that maintenance of dirt trails in the rainy season was not practical.

Mountlake Terrace students riding around. Source: Salud America!
Mountlake Terrace students riding around school bike trails.
Source: Salud America!

“We learned that when you remove sod and you put dirt down, it ends up trapping the water,” Johnson said. “It has to be more elevated.”

Johnson dreams of building a pump track, which is a continuous winding loop of dirt track with rolling dirt mounds and banked corners, on school grounds. They are an excellent challenge for riders to develop coordination and balance, and they don’t require much space to be built.

In the meantime, Mountlake Terrace Elementary School is slated to be redesigned and rebuilt by 2018.

“We are in the early stages of meetings with architects and designers. Everybody is giving ideas about what they want for the building and for the grounds around it, but we don’t know what we are going to get yet,” Hollingshead said.

Solving drainage issues, building a pump track and building a dedicated elevated cycling track have been added to the list. Johnson said.

“We are clearly thinking about how we are going to incorporate these trails into the development of the new school plans,” he said.

Johnson, Hershey, Brockman, and Hollingshead all recognize how comprehensive their physically activity program is now compared to six year ago and they recommend that schools start with one thing—something.

“It’s about hearing great ideas and running with them,” Johnson said. “Being open to an idea and trying it and then asking, what’s next?”

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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