WESTBROOK – Hundreds of different parts go into building and repairing a bike.
Not only are there different types of wheels depending on the kind of bicycle – a street bike with thin tires or a mountain bike with thicker rubber – there also are different chains, different pedals, even different-sized bolts holding the frame together.
Behind the back of the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, there’s a small trailer, a portable classroom once used to house a computer class, that now acts as a bike garage for a small group of Westbrook alternative education students. The students spend their afternoons “wrenching” away at bikes that will be donated or sold in the community.
Now known as the Westbrook Rehab Education N’ Cycling Hub, or WRENCH, the challenging, hands-on program is meant to keep the students interested and engaged. It’s also an incentive for finishing out their high school careers.
“Fixing a bike, it’s all problem solving. A lot of these kids don’t have problem-solving skills or patience. This also adds to their work ethic and potential job experience,” said Shannon Belt, an alternative education teacher at the school.
“A lot of people look at a bike as a toy or convenience. A lot of kids here don’t have the ability to have a car. Bikes are a transportation piece, an environmental piece and help teach responsibility. I’m hoping as the program goes the conversation about bikes changes,” said Belt.
The program will celebrate its success at an event Friday, May 17, at 11:30 a.m., behind the vocational school. The public is invited.
Belt has eight students on the roster for his class. He said he usually sees less than that because many of the students aren’t motivated to come to school.
“It’s one class period a day at seventh period,” said Belt. “I wanted it to be seventh period. These are the at-risk kids so by putting this at the end of the day, it’s sort of like making a carrot out of it. It’s worked for a couple of kids. For a few kids it makes them stay whereas they wouldn’t have stayed for a whole day before.”
Belt has offered the students their pick of bicycles to rehab and at graduation, the students who have gone through the program get to keep their bike.
So far, the best example of this type of incentive is Jerry Gowen, 18, a senior who went from missing three days a week to having perfect attendance. Belt and Gowen struck a deal that if he graduates, he will get a BMX bike, one of the most coveted bikes in the shop right now.
“I have a license but no car, a bike is my second option [for transportation]. We came up with a deal – if I graduate I get a bike,” Gowen said.
Students see the benefits of being part of the class: the hands-on learning.
“I didn’t want to sit inside the building and I’ve worked on bikes before at friends’ houses. It’s fun to get your hands dirty,” said Devin Traweek, 18.
Most of the students have prior experience working with bicycles. Morgan Mulkern, 16, works at a bike repair shop.
“I learn better hands on. Bikes have always been a big part of my life, it’s job training for me,” Mulkern said.
Besides learning a practical skill and having a built-in incentive for finishing high school, the students are also getting a second chance at a fresh start.
“These kids, some of them have records, they’ve been in trouble, but I took them to the [Great Maine] Bike Swap event the other week and I let these kids disappear for two hours. They were working. I got huge kudos afterward. It’s great to see when they’re asked to rise to an occasion they can,” Belt said.
Belt first started teaching at Westbrook High School in 2007. At the time, the high school principal at the time, Jon Ross, was the director of alternative learning and was working on building a small bike-repair program.
“He got bikes from the police department and fix them up minimally. The students would work on them, sell them in community or at an open house. It was very low key, the work done was not very extensive,” Belt said.
But Belt had bike-repair experience and an interest. After adding a few more tools – Pedro’s, a bike tool and lubrication shop, helped get the program started by giving the school a discount on many of the tools, and Calpine Energy in Westbrook also gave money to make the shop function – Belt used his connections with Gorham Bike and Ski in Portland to get more donated bikes and parts. Those help teach students the ins and outs of bike maintenance and repair by having them take apart bikes completely and work on different parts like straightening bike tires, adding chains and replacing old pedals.
Among the sources of bicycle donations now, said Belt, are Gorham Bike and Ski, L.L. Bean, after its annual bike sale, and the Portland bike swap.
“Once you tell people you’re accepting donated bikes, they just start pouring in,” said Belt, who now has more than 100 for students to work on, housed in the portable classroom, behind the classroom in a bike trailer and at the Westbrook Community Center.
The students often donate the fixed bikes back into the community; on occasion, the bikes are sold to pay for new tools and parts.
“When it started, the work done in here was not very extensive. It just was giving kids another outlet. We ran the program out of the class for three or four years and we just started doing more. I have eight kids on the roster now. Next year it’s going to grow,” said Belt.
Next year, Belt hopes to run a pilot project that combines math and science elements with the hands-on bike-building program already in place to give the students elective and science credits toward their graduation requirements.
“If we are able to do the pilot program and give kids credit for it, we’ll be one of only two schools in the country doing it. The other one is in California,” Belt said.
In the meantime, Belt is looking at other outlets to give his alternative education students a way to expand their horizons. He wants to take them to the elementary schools to teach the younger students bicycle safety. He also wants his students come along with him when he donates bikes to community members and children in need, to help them get a wider view of the population in their own neighborhood and see what a difference they are making, despite their own troubled backgrounds.
The students have also created and cleared a bike path between the high school and Canal Elementary School to test out the bikes and utilize previously unused green space.
“It took about two days. It loops around a few times,” said Mulkern as she showed off the winding path through a small cluster of trees, explaining it’s not hard to ride on a trail “once you know what you’re doing.”
Gowen had some advice for the novice bike rider: “Always make sure chain is on and your breaks are working.”
And if they’re not, bring the bike by the shop so Gowen or one of the other students can take a look.