By THOMAS GREENBERG
“Grab me a pair of 17s,” Ken Bowling said to Jeferson, one of the Life Skill students in the special education program at Cranston East. He was referring to a wrench that he needed in order to fix the brakes on one of the bikes he and his class of were repairing. More than one pair of hands moved to meet his request.
The scene was in the class “workshop” Monday afternoon, a converted home economics room in the technology wing of East being used for a bicycle-repair class. The workshop was both hectic and organized. Three bike stands were set up and there were two to three students at each, with the others observing or chiming in from a few feet away. Demetrius, James and Maggie worked to fix a broken brake line on a mountain bike while Hilary and Millie repaired the back tire of a BMX bike.
The students were working hard because it was vacation week, and the ultimate goal was to get six of the single-chain bicycles they’ve been repairing this semester ready as holiday gifts for families in need. The class meets Monday and Tuesday, so they needed to make sure the brakes got fixed, the gears were oiled and the wheels were spinning without problem.
The bicycle repair class was started this year by Bowling, who has been a teacher in Cranston public schools for 21 years including the last eight at East. He teaches everything from automotive to computer technology, but he had never before taught a class on bicycles – or a class made up completely of Like Skills students – before this year.
But that hasn’t stopped him from making an immediate impact on these students, according to Special Education teacher Kate Grant.
“They love this,” she said. “I hear them while they’re in here and they’re completely silent with Mr. Bowling. They’re super engaged. This gives them some different skills and they’re very excited about giving back to their community.”
The Life Skills students came to Bowling at the start of the school year, he said, to ask if he’d do a class with them. Since they may not be completely receptive to automotive or computer technology, he thought of bicycles.
“I thought to myself, when did I learn to become a mechanic,” he said. “On bikes!”
He pitched the idea to Principal Sean Kelly, who Bowling said has been supportive throughout the process of starting the very first class of this kind at East, and they gave him the green light to set up the class. He bought four bike stands and a pump for around $300, purchased through the Special Ed department, and brought his own tools over from the automotive shop.
The bicycles came to Bowling’s class through a couple sources. One was just through donations, from either students in the class or faculty, after Bowling told them all at a staff meeting. One student, Maggie, donated the bicycle she had grown out of.
The other source was the Cranston Police Department, who gave Bowling six bikes from their impound that needed repair and wouldn’t be used for anything else.
With the 14 donated bikes, the class has been troubleshooting them to figure out what’s wrong, then working in a group effort to fix them.
“It’s completely hands-on,” Bowling said. “The kids are learning how to break down bikes, take wheels and tires off, take rims off the tires, and then put them all back together and service them.”
He said that he spends the first few minutes of each class with a lesson on the bikes, to refresh the students’ memories on certain terms and tools, but most of the 50-minute class session is spent working in groups to repair the bikes.
“Teamwork is a big thing that I preach here,” he said. “They have to work as a group, as a crew. In the real world, you’re not going to be by yourself. You’ve got to be able to negotiate with each other and solve the problem.”
Bowling, whose knowledge spans from steelwork to automotive repair, has a background in hands-on work, and has taught the Life Skill students how to apply teambuilding skills to “get their hands dirty” for a good cause.
Although they must focus on the task to make sure they’re fixing the bikes the right way – and that they don’t hurt themselves in the process – Bowling keeps it light as he bounces around from station to station helping the kids.
“I can only be in three places at once,” he quipped after one of the students, Jonas, said he needed help fixing a tire.
The students have learned how to identify wrenches and pliers while at the same time working towards a common goal of getting bicycles ready for holiday gifts.
Bowling said that six of the bikes would be ready to give out to those in need. The class is getting the names, as well as age and gender, of viable candidates through word-of-mouth. One of the students, Jeferson, has been working to get a bike ready to surprise his 10 year-old brother, a fourth grader at Peters elementary.
On Monday, the class was able to complete three “finished products,” as Bowling called them.
“They’re working together, bettering their school, and giving back to the community,” he said. “That’s one thing that’s really profound about working at Cranston East – the support you get from the teachers and from the students.”
This class, which is the only bicycle class in the school, keeps the kids on task and gives them valuable skills, according to David Bizier, a business teacher at East. And the hard work of the students has resulted in six young children in need getting fully repaired bicycles this holiday season.
Bowling said that the program, which he hopes to continue after this school year, has even prompted the art class to begin designing a big sign for a future bicycle class in the technology wing.
It’s going to read, in big green letters, “Thunderbolt Bike Shop.”