The gym door at George Middle School swung open on a recent autumn morning as more than a dozen students donning helmets walked their bikes onto the sidewalk.
“Feel free to hop onto your bike,” said Lale Santelices, the City of Portland’s Safe Routes to School coordinator.
The students formed a single line and mounted their bikes, ready to go.
“We’re going to merge into traffic,” Santelices said, as she led the group to the surrounding streets in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood. “So what’s something we should do?”
“Look both ways,” a student called out.
“Look both ways, absolutely,” Santelices said. “We are going to signal. We’re going to look both ways. And we’re going to go!”
Sandwiched by adults, students pedaled down the street one after the other, putting into practice bike safety techniques they have learned since the beginning of the school year.
George Middle School is one of five Portland middle schools piloting traffic and bike safety lessons in their health and physical education classes.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation historically contracted bike safety educators at Street Trust to guest teach at elementary and middle schools for two weeks per year. The nonprofit still helps PBOT create bike safety education.
But out of more than 100 schools, “we were only reaching 40 schools,” Santelices said during a sit-down interview.
Bike safety education is typically among the first to go as teachers face pressure to spend more time on math and reading to meet rising benchmarks, Santelices said.
“For our program to be sustainable and to be able to reach all students, it needed to be more embedded in the school,” she said.
Santelices said PBOT wanted to offer a more comprehensive program that teachers could teach both in health and PE classes with training and technical support from the agency.
Through travel surveys and conversations with families and teachers, PBOT staff homed in on middle school as an important transition time when kids start to learn how to be independent. In addition, not all elementary schools in Portland have a dedicated PE teacher or program that middle schools do.
Last school year, PBOT and a group of middle school teachers designed lessons about traffic safety laws, basic bicycling techniques, and the health benefits of walking, biking and taking the bus.
Now, PBOT is training teachers to teach those lessons directly to students. The agency provides all the bikes and helmets for the students, which schools alone couldn’t afford.
Programs like this one are getting support from Metro’s new Safe Routes to School program. Metro recently awarded a grant to PBOT to bring this new bike safety curriculum to the Parkrose School District. The program is helping jurisdictions around the region develop innovative approaches that ensure students get to school safely.
PBOT’s new approach to teaching bike and traffic safety leverages the state’s mandate that public schools increase time spent on physical education.
“When you can integrate the health piece, it goes right along with our curriculum,” said Timothy Mitchell, a PE teacher at George Middle School who helped shape the curriculum.
Importantly, teachers also share tips on how students can keep themselves safe when traveling to and from school – particularly if they’re harassed or bullied.
“The reality is that this is a huge missing hole in health curriculum,” said Kayci Murray, who teaches at Harriet Tubman Middle School and also helped shape the curriculum. “Math is important, but navigating a city is really important.”
Murray said she’s proud Portland is home to many organizations that promote walking, biking and taking transit, and that advocate for street infrastructure improvements.
“And yet we’re behind on the educational piece [for kids],” she said. She believes one way to nurture future generations of people who support investments in infrastructure is to educate kids through programs like this one.
Joel Andersen, a parent with two daughters at Tubman, couldn't agree more. He was happy when he received a letter in the mail letting parents know that bike safety would be integrated with the school's health and physical education classes. It's tough to teach your own kids how to bike, he said.
"There's a lot of anxiousness and nervousness and that can come across as anxiety… to a child,” Andersen said. “To have a professional teacher teaching it as part of the curriculum… best idea ever… Why we've been doing this forever?”
Andersen thinks the bike safety curriculum is critical for a middle school located near a freeway and in a neighborhood with busy bike thoroughfares. He has seen a lot of close calls with children walking and biking between cars queued up during drop-off and pick-up times.
"I didn't know a lot of things about my turn signals and a lot [of other things], and I do ride a bike," said Andersen's daughter Chauncey, who is in seventh grade. "I'm moving this year so I'm going to start riding my bike to school [from my new neighborhood]. It's really helpful to know how to stay safe on the streets."
The program is still in the early stages. PBOT and teachers are still shaping the curriculum.
Back in the St. Johns neighborhood, the sounds of wheels spinning got louder as PE students approached George Middle School. The kids, wearing smiles on their faces, got high-fives from their instructors as they returned to the gym. Inside as the bell rung, a new class arrived to do it all over again.
A new Regional Snapshot coming soon
Stay tuned for more stories like this about the journey to school across greater Portland in Metro's upcoming Regional Snapshot coming soon in December 2019.