Mini Grant helps El Paso school on military base grow bike licensing program

Milam Elementary in El Paso, Texas, has a unique method for keeping students safe and cycling.  For the past six years, Milam (pronounced MY-lum) has given a bike license to each student in grades 3, 4 and 5 who passes a written and skills test after a two-week bicycle safety course.  The license allows those students to ride their bikes to school on their own (that year OR for the duration of their time at the school).

The National Center acknowledged the program with a $1,000 Mini Grant award in January 2012, helping the school enhance the program with new teaching materials, bicycle safety DVD, signage, helmets, LED reflective lights for walkers and cyclists and incentive items.

In some ways, Milam Elementary is an ideal place for active transportation to school, with most of its students living in a densely clustered neighborhood within a mile of the school.  But the reason for that densely clustered neighborhood presents its own challenges.

That’s because Milam is on a military base, technically on Biggs Army Airfield, which is part of Fort Bliss U.S. Army base.  Fort Bliss is a huge base—the second largest army installation in the country behind the nearby White Sands Missile Range—and home to more than 1,400 families and 8,000 people.  Fort Bliss is the base of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division and many other units, including the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.

Every year from August to June—note the concurrence with the traditional public school year—200 noncommissioned officers attend the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss.  These NCOs are mature military careerists, many bringing their families to El Paso for this ten-month assignment, and their children go to Milam.

Out of Milam’s population of 350 students, Physical Education teacher Lily Najera estimates that 40 percent are from Sergeants Major Academy families.  That’s about 140 students.  Along with the comings and goings of other military families, Najera estimates that half the student body is new every school year.

“It’s like starting over each year,” Najera said.

Najera, who has taught P.E. there for 16 years, runs the walking and biking safety program at Milam.  Every August, at the beginning of the school year when the new students arrive, Najera and her colleague Eddie Avila conduct the two-week walking and cycling safety course for every student in the school.  And every January, after the holidays when many of the kids are given bikes as gifts, they teach the course again.

After each course session, third, fourth and fifth graders can arrange to take the written and skills test after school to earn their bike license.  Najera encourages parents to come to school for their child’s test.

“It is important because sometimes we have to tell the parents about things we see that are of concern to us.  Like the bike is either too small or too big for the student, the brakes not working properly, or the tires don’t have enough air.  The parents have been helpful in correcting those kinds of problems.”

Parents—as well as other students, faculty, administration and staff—also help monitor the young cyclists’ biking skills and behaviors, said Najera.  “If riding violations are reported to us, we will talk to the student or students reported and review the rules,” she said.  Additional violations could lead to a suspension of riding privileges for up to a week.

“I’m just focused on safety,” Najera said.  “Our program is all about teaching the students to be safe.”

Part of that safety program is bicycle helmets.  Najera used some of the mini grant funds to purchase helmets which were given to students in need.  All cyclists were also given a reflective LED helmet light.

Younger students in kindergarten, first- and second-grade benefit from the program although they can’t earn a bike license to ride alone.

“We realize that not every student will be riding so we present material for both walking and riding,” said Najera.  “And we discuss with the students the importance of staying active, with walking to school being one way to do that.”

Walkers were also given a reflective LED light, as well as a walk safely to school booklet.

Down the road, Najera has a goal of helping the younger students learn to ride by acquiring a set of glide bikes (a.k.a. balance bikes or walking/running bikes), the pedal-less bikes that help new riders learn how to balance.

The results of this program have been an increase in the number of students bicycling and walking to school as well as increased walking and biking safety awareness for every student in the school.

“Our principal has been very supportive of our safety program,” said Najera, “and the parents are happy about our efforts to make walking and biking to school safe.”

After all, whether on a military base, in a large city, a suburb or rural community, as Najera said, it’s all about teaching the students to be safe.

Safe Routes Matters November/December 2012

Getting There Together: A Message from the Director on Optimism  ||  Q&A with Gabe Rousseau  ||  Joke contest hatches award winning Safe Routes to School program  ||  Mini Grant helps El Paso school on military base grow bike licensing program  ||  January Webinar: Walk Talk— The SRTS Call-In Show Webinar  ||  National Center launches Walking School Bus Online Training