Before the start of the new school year in Washington, D.C., as families were buying supplies and teachers were drafting their lesson plans, Miriam Kenyon was spending her days in a warehouse in the city’s Northeast quadrant, surrounded by bikes.
She and a group of volunteers were building them: Diamondback Vipers and Mini Vipers, 16- and 20-inch kids’ models. “They’re BMX bikes, so they’re really sturdy and they’re made for multiple uses,” explains Kenyon, the director of health and physical education at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).
All the bikes in the warehouse—a huge fleet numbering 475—had to be ready by the time the first bell rang on August 24. Once assembled, they were divvied up and shipped to elementary schools for a novel educational experiment.
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The goal: to teach every second grader in the city’s school system how to ride a bike.
“Every kid should know how to ride a bike,” Kenyon says. “It’s a great way not only to get to school, but to exercise, and to see your city. It promotes independence.”
Bike safety instruction is fairly common in schools around the United States. In D.C., the nonprofit Washington Area Bicyclist Association sends instructors into schools as part of the national Safe Routes to School program. The instructors teach safety basics and bring in bikes and helmets so the kids can practice their skills.
But that’s not the same thing as teaching kids how to ride, which typically doesn’t happen at school. Dan Hoagland, WABA’s education director, started noticing on his school visits that “large cohorts of students” in D.C. couldn’t ride at all. He talked about it with Kenyon. “In the back of my mind, as I ran these programs, I thought, ‘How do we figure out a way to more comprehensively approach bike education for kids?’”
Earlier this year, Kenyon discovered how: through a DCPS initiative called Cornerstones. New this fall, Cornerstones assigns common projects to students across the city—a core curriculum in miniature, basically. Officials hope it will improve academic rigor and narrow the achievement gap that separates affluent and poor, white and black students.
When Cornerstones was announced, Kenyon saw her opportunity and grabbed it. Bike-riding instruction could become a Cornerstone project in physical education. The District Department of Transportation agreed to fund the purchase of 475 bikes, and a universal bike-riding program—the first of its kind in a U.S. school district—was born.