On a recent afternoon, two-dozen teenage girls from Denver’s South High School spent nearly an hour looping around the wide paths of Washington Park on their bikes. They chatted about finals, TV shows, and the occasional raindrops that splattered down from the sky.

The girls, some in hoodies and track pants and others wearing skinny jeans and ballet flats, weren’t out of place among the other bikers, joggers and dog-walkers at the popular city park. But their reasons for the mid-day outing were a bit different than most. They were there for fifth-period physical education class, which for the first time this year includes biking.

The new unit was the brainchild of South’s P.E. teacher Deb Swan, who hit on the idea three years ago as she reflected on the school’s location just across Louisiana Avenue from spacious Wash Park. The topic also fit with the trend in P.E. away from team sports and toward lifelong fitness.

“It’s just about what they can do the rest of their life,” said Swan. “It’s a form of transportation. It’s a form of fun. It’s just for everything, leisure, fun, transportation, exercise”

Swan isn’t alone in her desire to incorporate sports like biking into the high school P.E. experience. Denver Public Schools administrators plan to use part of a new $508,000 federal grant to add six outdoor education activities to the P.E. menu at the district’s 15 high schools by 2017.

South High students chatted as they looped around Wash Park.
South High students chatted as they looped around Wash Park.

In addition to biking, those activities include fishing, snowshoeing, archery, orienteering and geocaching, which involves hunting for hidden objects using GPS coordinates. While some of these activities are already on offer at certain high schools, none are available districtwide. Snow-shoeing and geocaching will be new for all the schools. Five high schools will implement the new topics  each year for the next three years.

“For inner city students, a lot of them don’t get a chance to do the outdoor education piece,” said Eric Larson, physical education coordinator for Denver Public Schools.

That’s certainly the case for some of Swan’s students. In fact, she had to send two girls, recently arrived from other countries, to the library during the Wash Park excursion because neither knew how to ride a bike.

“I’ve been teaching them, but they’re not ready to go around the park yet,” she said.

There are also students like Laxmi Karki who enjoy biking but don’t necessarily have time for it outside of school. The 18-year-old senior has a job delivering food for an Indian restaurant in Lakewood and said she sometimes works every day of the week.

Although one girl in Swan’s class admitted she never rides a bike outside of school and doesn’t like exercising, most seemed to appreciate the leisurely bike ride, with its background noise of whirring wheels and geese honking overhead.

“It’s fun. You get to bond with your friends and ride bikes and stuff,” said ninth-grader Meske Goode said. “If you like to ride bikes, it’s really fun.”

No biking for big kids

Although Colorado is known as a bike-loving state, you won’t find the subject covered in many high schools. One exception is the Poudre School District, where biking and bike maintenance are covered in “Adventure P.E.” Although there is a fee for the class, students eligible for free and reduced-price meals enroll for free. Some Colorado high schools also have after-school bike clubs or mountain biking teams, but in-school biking instruction remains rare.

In part, it’s because most kids learn to ride at the age of five or six, making the elementary years an obvious time for school-based bike events, whether it’s bike rodeos, bicycle giveaways or safety talks. There’s also the fact that Safe Routes to School funding, which pays for infrastructure and other improvements to encourage biking and walking to school, mostly targets schools in the K-8 range.

Swan spent two years collecting bikes before she launched the biking unit last fall.
Swan spent two years collecting bikes before she launched the biking unit last fall.

In tailoring her biking class for the teen population, Swan borrowed an approach used by a Virginia teacher who spoke at a district P.E. training last summer. The idea was to look at biking through a drivers education lens, focusing on handling, safety and rules of the road.

To that end, Swan partnered with Transportation Solutions, a southeast Denver organization dedicated to reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. With seed funding from AAA Colorado, the non-profit developed a 10-day biking curriculum that’s now been piloted at South as well as in a small after-school class at George Washington High School.

“We try to hit on a lot of the skills necessary for them to see that biking is just as viable a transportation option as driving,” said Abby Musfeldt, a fellow at Transportation Solutions.

Those skills include pre-ride equipment checks, route-mapping, safe turning and stopping, and proper hand-signaling and lane usage. Much of it boils down to being predictable and communicating with drivers and pedestrians.

Even if students don’t end up using bikes as their primary mode of transportation, Musfeldt said the class helps make “sure they’re aware of and can relate to bicyclists.”

The money crunch         

While some districts worry about liability issues, cost is probably the biggest barrier to bike education at the high school level. Not only are bikes expensive, especially ones durable enough to withstand intense use by teen riders, on-going maintenance is a must. Inevitably, tires go flat, shifters break and chains fall off, meaning that teachers like Swan turn into part-time bike mechanics.

bikers pause at street
Two students pause before crossing Louisiana Avenue and heading back to school.

“It’s a lot of work. I spend so much time fixing bikes,” she said.

Swan began cobbling together a bike collection in 2012, buying a few from garage sales, co-opting a couple from agreeable family members, soliciting bike donations from South parents and obtaining some from the non-profit Recycle Bicycles. More recently, she was able to use some of the district’s mill levy funds to buy 20 new GT mountain bikes.

The difficulty of providing bikes for twenty or thirty kids at a time isn’t lost on students either. Sophomore Erin Spencer, who rode one of South’s sleek new black and green bikes during the Wash Park ride, said of the biking unit, “I find it interesting cause no other school really has the money to be able to do it.”

At George Washington High School, money was also the main problem for a few students interested in joining the after-school biking club sponsored by P.E. teacher SyRae Weikle. When she learned that a couple didn’t own bikes and another had only a broken-down bike, she worked with Transportation Solutions staff to set up a four-session after-school biking class similar to the one at South.

girls in biking class
Students spent about an hour biking at Wash Park on a recent afternoon.

The big difference was that GW students earned a used bike from Recycle Bicycles once they completed the class. Ultimately, nine of 13 participants got a bike. The others, including a foreign exchange student from China who had a bicycle back home, didn’t need them.

“It’s pretty inspiring for them to become more active,” she said.

Weikle, an avid cyclist and bike racer, hopes George Washington will be one of the schools to add biking next year. She lauded the district’s P.E. department for spearheading the program on a districtwide scale.

“I think it’s great that we are very progressive…You don’t find it everywhere that the kids can have this.”