First Person

Nurturing The Next Generation Of NYC Bike Advocates

Mike Dowd is a social studies teacher at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School. This post originally appeared on Streetsblog, a daily news source connecting people to information about sustainable transportation and livable communities.

Students from Midwood High School are so interested in biking that they quickly overwhelmed the school's capacity to teach cycling skills.

Last fall, at the high school where I teach, I was approached by some 12th-grade boys looking to start a cycling club. As a long-time bike activist, I was thrilled to help. But after our first few meetings, problems arose. At our school, seniors finish the day much earlier than I do, and a new semester brought scheduling difficulties. Interest started to drop and the club appeared ready to fold.

I hated to see this happen, so I decided to try to recruit from the younger grades. My hopes weren’t high, as I had never noticed much interest in cycling among our students. But I was quite mistaken. Not only has the club continued to exist, but the enthusiasm it has generated has changed my thinking about how to create a more bike-friendly city. I now believe that promoting youth cycling is a crucial missing component in the movement for livable streets.

Despite my modest recruiting efforts, more than 30 new students attended our club’s next meeting. To my surprise, the vast majority were girls, few were regular cyclists, and many didn’t own a bike or had never learned to ride. But for whatever reason, they seemed interested in the club.

The problem was, I had no idea what to do with these kids and no guidance from the Department of Education as to what was permitted. Over the next few weeks, as I searched for ideas and advice on how to get them on bikes, new students kept coming to our meetings.

Fortunately, I found Bike New York, whose free after-school riding classes in Brooklyn Bridge Park perfectly matched our needs. They offered group riding skills for those who knew how to ride and basic lessons for non-riders.  Even though they were located far away and their classes conflicted with many of our members’ other commitments, we had more than enough students to fill a class.

As I watched nervously the first day, things appeared to be going well. Though the initial drills were fairly simple, the kids seemed excited just to be on bikes. In fact, one girl offered some very high teenage praise, when she whispered to me during a break, “This isn’t as boring as I thought it would be.” Later, as the group returned from a short ride, another girl said, “I’m so glad I joined this club. I haven’t felt this happy in years!” I was bowled over.

As the school year ended, the classes continued with great enthusiasm. I was very proud of our group, especially those who had learned to ride for the first time. Yet the scope of our success was limited. The kids were enthusiastic about riding but couldn’t pursue their interest over the summer. Though they were eager to continue with supervised rides, they weren’t ready to hit the streets on their own, nor did they necessarily own bikes.

Furthermore, as school began this fall, I had to avoid publicizing the club too much. Just through word of mouth, I now have more interested students than Bike New York can accommodate in one class. Students continue to approach me about joining, but I don’t know what to do with them. A few are taking repair classes at Recycle-A-Bicycle, but space there is limited, too. And now that our fall riding classes are over, we have to wait until spring to ride again.

At the same time, our limited successes have given me great hope. I now realize there is a huge latent demand for cycling among young people. If advocates can figure out how to meet this demand, the movement for safer streets will have much broader support.

My students tend to come from communities that are underrepresented in the world of bike advocacy. Most are girls, most are from immigrant families, and most live in southern Brooklyn. Their neighborhoods tend not to have much cycling infrastructure. We need to tend to their interest in riding if we want better cycling conditions to extend throughout the city.

This should not be a daunting task. One potential model is Beat the Streets, a foundation run by former wrestlers that funds middle and high-school wrestling programs in city schools. In just a few years, they’ve turned a sport that barely existed in the city into one with a major presence. A few deep-pocketed cyclists could probably make a similar impact.

But I don’t think we need to rely on private donors to make this happen. The city already has a budget to provide physical education to teenagers. There’s no reason cycling can’t be part of the curriculum. Many schools, short on gym space, already have offsite classes. My school, for instance, offers bowling and billiards at outside locations.

Imagine cycling centers in locations like Floyd Bennett Field and Flushing Meadows Park offering afternoon, weekend, and summer classes. This wouldn’t require anything complex or expensive. Bike New York operates classes using just a large tent for instruction and a few lockers for bike and helmet storage. If the city were willing to pay for instruction, perhaps private money could help fund some of the overhead and supplement the in-school classes with other activities, like group rides.

There’s no doubt that Mayor Bloomberg has been transformative in making our streets safer for biking. But if the mayor wants to cement this legacy, he needs to broaden support for bike infrastructure. The best way to do this would be to nurture the next generation of bike activists, especially in neighborhoods where cycling has yet to take hold. In doing so, he’d be creating a constituency for a greener, healthier city for generations to come. Trust me, our kids are waiting to be engaged.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.