The smell of chain grease and youthful chatter permeates the air as children search for tools, scrub chains, and pump up tires.
“Can I try it now?” a girl asks, hopefully.
“We’ve still got some work to do before test rides,” her teacher says. “Make sure you check your brake cables.”
The girl picks up a wrench and kneels over a light blue bike. She is a member of the Little Wrenches bike club, just one of the many cycling education opportunities at Adams Elementary School.
“The club was started out of a need,” Principal Amy Alzina explains. “We had a student who was really struggling academically, socially, and emotionally.” She recalls a staff meeting where teachers brainstormed ways to reach the child. “We came together as a staff and asked, ‘What can we all do together to help him be successful?’”
Fifth-grade teacher and avid mountain biker Blake Garnand suggested building a bike with the boy. Alzina says, “It was a way to help him feel value in what he was doing.” Other children soon took an interest, and with the help of some tools donated by Bici Centro, the bike club was born.
Today, Little Wrenches is in its fourth year. The 15 members meet each Thursday afternoon under the guidance of Garnand and volunteer mechanic Louis Andaloro.
Garnand, an 18-year veteran teacher, was motivated to share his lifelong passion with the students. “I have been in love with bikes ever since I could push one … Bikes are just magical. They’ve been magical for me, and I see it in the kids now.”
Club participants begin by learning basic skills. “The first goal is to learn how to patch a flat and to be able to tell if your bike is safe to ride,” Andaloro says. He believes the mechanical aspect of the club is especially important. “It teaches you self-reliance and responsibility.”
Garnand has watched a recent surge in cycling at Adams with great excitement. “When I first started here, the bike racks were empty. Now they’re quickly filling up.” He says this is largely due to the enthusiasm and dedication of the school’s physical education teacher, Julie Churchman.
Churchman came to Adams as a long-term substitute. Having grown up riding the streets of L.A. and biking 15 miles to the beach in the summer, she was shocked to learned that nearly half of her new students didn’t know how to ride a bike. “It’s a right of passage as a child, the freedom, and the fun.”
Regardless of budget constraints, Churchman was determined to get her students riding. She obtained a grant from Cycle Kids, which provided the school with a fleet of mountain bikes and a curriculum covering bike safety, health, and nutrition.
Local shop, Hazard’s Cyclesport, assembled the bikes, which have become a part of the PE program and recess. Biking is now offered to every 1st-6th grade student. This year 99 percent of the graduating class can ride a two-wheeler.
“For a lot of these kids, riding on campus is their only opportunity to ride a bike,” says Churchman. She says the bikes spark a growth in self-esteem. “When they get on and ride for the first time, the confidence that they have gained is huge.”
Garnand sees similar benefits in the bike club participants. “It teaches kids that you can be intelligent in something, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be math or language arts. It can be something outside of the classroom.”
He describes a child who had difficulty following directions and completing tasks in class, but quickly became a budding bike mechanic. “I really struggled with teaching him [in the classroom], but in the bike club, he was one of the most capable kids I have ever worked with.” The boy’s behavior improved significantly after successfully mastering bike maintenance skills.
In addition to the repair club and PE curriculum, last year the school began hosting Bici Familia, in partnership with the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition. The event included a BMX demo, dinner, helmet distribution, safety talks, and family biking on the blacktop.
“We had no idea how many kids would show up,” Churchman says of the night. “We were hoping maybe 50 people would come, but we had close to 250 show up. It was hugely successful.”
Back at the bike club, Garnand urges his students to finish up their projects and reminds them that this is the last time they will meet for the year. The children drone out a disappointed “no!” in unison. No one is ready to say good-bye. But, the blow is made a bit softer by a parting gift. At the end of the term, any club member in need of a bike may bring one home.
These bikes have been refurbished by the students themselves, earned through their own hard work. “They are just ecstatic. It’s a really big deal for them because a lot of them can’t afford to buy one,” says Andaloro, who sometimes picks up cheap bikes from garage sales for this purpose. “To help kids get a bike is one of the biggest rewards of the whole process for me.”
The girl working on the light blue bike has checked her brakes, scrubbed the spokes, and cleaned the chain. Now she will bring home a bike, and with it, the chance to experience one of the great joys of childhood.