BUCKLAND — An interest born from worn-out bicycles in Mohawk Trail Regional School’s gym class almost six years ago has flourished into a program that brings youths the opportunity to explore mountain biking and focus on school.
While biking has served as a respite for students in past years, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that showed how necessary the outlet would be to them.
“As the kids were coming back to school this year, there were a couple that really latched onto biking and wanted to go biking every day,” Mohawk Trail Regional School supported classroom teacher Angela Schatz recalled. “When they were having a hard time, we’d go biking, and it really settled kids. They would be unable to just function in the class, go out and bike for however long, and come back and suddenly they were able to sit down and do work.”
The balance Schatz has created within her classroom by encouraging her pupils to explore an activity outside on the trails has produced students who desire to continue coming to school. By creating an accessible outlet in mountain biking, Schatz has seen incredible success in her students’ academic abilities.
Schatz made a list of bikers she knew locally and began contacting them, eager to foster community connections between students and local partners.
Chris Gilbert is one of those local bikers. Active in the mountain biking community, Gilbert runs the Eastern States Mountain Biking Cup and is a mechanic at Bicycle World in Greenfield.
While Schatz and Gilbert can trace their roots back to Mohawk Trail Regional School Class of 2001, their lives weren’t connected again until this program.
“When I got the call from Angela, it was just natural for me to want to continue to do that,” he said.
“Working with kids and just seeing the kind of effect it has on them when they go biking, it’s not just a physical thing, it’s great for the mind, too,” Gilbert continued. “So it’s terrific that I’m able to spread some knowledge (and) ride with kids.”
Gilbert became involved this past spring and was able to help Schatz and the students out on their weekly trailblazing. When they weren’t on the trail, Schatz would take the students into the parking lot to practice skills like shifting and adjusting the seat.
“It was really great to see kids who had a hard time in the school building, just when they were out on the trails, they were so different,” she said. “They’re working together and overcoming obstacles. It’s really good for not only physical stuff, but also social emotional stuff for the kids. It helps them buy into school and also be a part of something.”
Along with Gilbert, who has been imperative in developing students’ bike skills, the program has created an opportunity for community outreach, supporting both kids and biking. The initial bike repairs came from $500 a group of community members received from the New England Mountain Biking Association, and now Schatz is hoping more equipment and structure comes from a grant she has applied for.
Outride, an organization that funds youth cycling initiatives, offers a grant specifically targeted to middle schoolers who have learning challenges. If received, the grant would provide 10 to 20 new mountain bikes and helmets, plus a curriculum with biking basics. They’ll find out about the grant this fall.
Schatz thinks a long-term mountain biking program will keep students in school. She and Gilbert hope to cycle the middle schoolers through their program, enabling them to also take part in biking skills classes and internships at the high school level.
It’s not just the supported classroom students who are interested in biking, but other youths in the building. The Outride grant would allow Schatz to expand her program to all students and create an opportunity for integration amongst all classes.
Having watched all the kids bike together, she said, seemed to serve as a bonding experience.
“It sort of leveled the playing field,” Schatz said, “because all kids are the same when they’re on a bike.”