Students Find Focus on a Bike

Photo by Cat Mayer

Photo by Cat Mayer

When Rob Moore was in the Army, it wasn’t care packages from home that got him through his tour in Iraq. “I got my bike shipped out,” says the longtime teacher and bike mechanic. “Just to be able to pedal, it has gotten me through tons of stuff throughout my whole life.”

Moore, along with East Middle School teacher Patrick Roenicke, brought personal cycling experiences like this to the implementation of Riding for Focus, an innovative middle school program that uses biking as a pathway to academic, health, and social success. East was one of 20 schools nationwide that received the program grant for the 2017-18 school year.

The CEO and founder of Specialized Bicycles, Mike Sinyard, struggled with ADHD throughout his life but noticed that his inability to focus disappeared after a bike ride. This led him to establish Riding for Focus and the Specialized Foundation, which supports schools with a fleet of bicycles, safety equipment, training, and a research-based curriculum to get kids with similar challenges out on bikes as part of their school day.

Roenicke says that he was moved to apply for the opportunity because he sees too many kids missing out on “the good stuff that comes from being on a bike.”

“A lot of people just don’t understand how important it is to get outside, and I’m not just talking about diabetes and obesity,” he explains. “Our valley has a lot of mental health issues. I don’t know if this is the cure, but it sure won’t hurt.”

Timothy Fifer, the new principal at East, notes that the program fits well with his and School District 51’s vision for a school community that supports the whole student — academically, physically, and emotionally. As a cyclist and outdoorsman himself, Fifer knows firsthand the far-reaching benefits of being active outside.

“I’m much more likely to be in the moment,” Fifer says. This translates to a readiness to learn and an ability to focus when focus is what’s needed.

Susan Vela, whose three grandsons participated in Riding for Focus last year, agrees. She saw a marked difference in Xanthus, the youngest, after he started the program. More importantly, he noticed.

“He has said, ‘I can pay attention more and I’m not moving around in my seat,’ and he feels good about that,” she explains. Vela also says Ezekiel, her oldest grandson, was motivated to find odd jobs and earn enough money to buy a mountain bike of his own. He now rides on trails regularly, outside of school time.

After working out some of the logistics during the first year, data collection and outcome tracking will be a large focus of the program this school year. East owns the 30 mountain bikes that came with the grant, so Riding for Focus is able to continue indefinitely without much financial support. Roenicke clarifies, however, that the program still has ongoing needs.

“We could really use some 27.5-inch inner tubes,” he says with a laugh. “Apparently goatheads are real, and we are really good at finding them.”

Sarah JohnsonBiking