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Gearing up for life

Students learn hands-on skills in Pathways to Graduation bike-repair program
New York Teacher

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Trifon Douglas replaces the bottom bracket on a hybrid bike, a general-purpose b
Jonathan Fickies

Trifon Douglas replaces the bottom bracket on a hybrid bike, a general-purpose bicycle that blends parts from road bikes, touring bikes and mountain bikes.

They’re putting a new spin on learning at the Brooklyn hub of Pathways to Graduation.

Earn-A-Bike is an elective program in the city Department of Education that helps students ages 17 to 21 get high school equivalency diplomas. Students learn to take apart and recondition bicycles, then put them back together. They get to keep the completed bike.

“It gives them a chance to be an expert at something,” says math and literacy teacher Nicole Santiago.

At Pathways, “we teach everything and that’s great,” says Ariff Hajee, a science teacher. “But we also want to give the students something they can use, something hands-on.”

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Bicycle parts and tools fill the bike shop at the Brooklyn hub of Pathways to Gr
Jonathan Fickies

Bicycle parts and tools fill the bike shop at the Brooklyn hub of Pathways to Graduation where teachers Nicole Santiago (left) and Ariff Hajee started offering the bike-repair elective in 2015.

Hajee, a cycling veteran, and Santiago, then a novice, started Earn-A-Bike in 2015.

“The program is brilliant and very creative,” said Pathways to Graduation Chapter Leader Michael Friedman. “Students are learning a skill that’s very much in demand right now.”

Data recently released by the city Department of Transportation shows bicycle commuting in New York City has grown twice as fast as in other major cities. In 2015, almost 45,000 people rode bikes to work, almost double the number in next highest Los Angeles.

At Pathways, Hajee says, the program “helps retention: This is a hook.”

And while it keeps some students in school, it helps others get there. Trifon Douglas, 20, rides to school every day on a bike he earned.

Douglas rode in his native Jamaica but never had his own bike. Thanks to the program, he’s now earned four. But it’s not just bikes he has been building. “My attendance was good in Jamaica, but my reading level was bad. I came here and built it up,” he says.

Hajee says Douglas is “very persistent. He’s going to finish that job. This is the kind of focus you want.”

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Jonathan Fickies
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Jonathan Fickies

After fixing a bike for themselves, students fix one for the shop. When the class ends, some ask to repeat it. “They become the master mechanics in the shop,” says Santiago. They keep building bikes, and the naturally gifted ones “help their friends and others, they help themselves, they troubleshoot.”

One student built several bikes, then sent all but one to his native Liberia, Santiago recounted. When the city had a helmet giveaway in Brooklyn, the students were there to offer free assistance to cyclists. And for the city’s five-borough bike tour, the class sponsored a “pump team” that checked tire pressure and pumped air for tour bikers so classmates could ride for free.

The bike shop is filled with tools, parts and bicycles in various stages of repair. One day in June, a student was adding finishing touches before Hajee’s inspection while others were working on frames, and Alexandra Pozsogin was overhauling the hub of a wheel. The 21-year-old from Ukraine said she would save money by earning a bike, which she will use for “traveling around the city and going to college.” Pozsogin wants to study graphics or game design. Would she like to design her own bike? “Actually, I was thinking about it,” she said, “a bike for the gym.”

Some students have already designed, or customized, bikes.

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Jonathan Fickies
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Jonathan Fickies

“The expert riders and mechanics get a frame and then go and get their own parts,” says Hajee. He recently took Demba Niang, one such gifted student, to Recycle-A-Bicycle’s warehouse in Long Island City. “They go in with a bucket and come out with everything they need,” said Hajee, one of the nonprofit’s board members.

Before emigrating from Senegal, Niang said, if “something was broken, I had to bring the bike to someone.” Now, he says, he is doing repairs himself, is learning to work on a team and has interned at local L&L Cycles.

The Earn-a-Bike program has a partnership with Recycle-A-Bicycle, which provides parts and education including a 20-hour training course both teachers took. The teachers also get donated bikes and use bike parts found on the street.

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Modou Fall cleans the frame of a bicycle he’s reconditioning as part of the Earn
Jonathan Fickies

Modou Fall cleans the frame of a bicycle he’s reconditioning as part of the Earn-A-Bike program.

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Reinventing how students get wheels: Quacy Clementson rides to school on a bike
Jonathan Fickies

Reinventing how students get wheels: Quacy Clementson rides to school on a bike he earned.

The program features a bike club, where Hajee says they teach the students to ride in a group and about bicycle safety issues.

On cue, 18-year-old Modou Fall, also from Senegal, says: “No helmet, no bike.”

Hajee laughs. “See how tall Modou is? He was riding a bike two sizes too small but he didn’t care, he just wanted to ride.” Staffers at Recycle-A-Bicycle, where Modou interned, found a better fit. “He’s going to enjoy it,” Hajee said.

Quacy Clementson, 20, likened the class to family. “When we don’t understand how to do something, we ask each other. And we ride together in Prospect Park.”

Clementson, a native of Guyana who rides to school daily, wants to be a mechanic. He chooses difficult projects because “you have to think harder,” he says.

He credits the program with teaching him “foundation skills” that help him repair other things.

“The kind of knowledge you gain,” Clementson says, “you will not forget.”