The first thing you notice upon walking into the main entrance if Beach School in north Portland is a Safe Routes to School map with a listing of locations and times for catching a bike train. The placement of that map isn’t an accident. This is a school that embraces biking and walking.
There are a lot of schools in Portland where biking and walking flourish, but Beach deserves a second look, not only for the way their school community has come together to push for change from the bottom up, but also because just a few years ago, its administrators banned biking altogether.
Later this week, I’ll round up some of the engineering and policy improvements that have recently happened at the school. It’s an amazing story about dedicated parents, supportive administrators, and a strong partnership with the City of Portland. But today, I want to share a bit of a recent chat I had with the school’s top administrator.
“When you come and drop kids off in a car, you have to go through extended extra effort to meet the teacher, or to say hello to other parents and families on the playground. When you ride your bike, it’s that much easier.”
Tom Breuckman, principal
Around the corner from that map in the hallway, is the office of the school’s principal, Thomas Breuckman. While Breuckman is quick to defer credit to the dedication of parents who have done all the legwork, he’s still the guy at the top who has to approve everything and it’s his name at the bottom of letters that get sent home.
Before the first day of school last Tuesday Breuckman sent a letter to all Beach families that made it crystal clear where he (and the school) stands on transportation. Under the heading, “When You Bring Your Child To School”, the letter listed four recommendations. “Walk or bike to school or ride public transit, as frequently as possible” was the first recommendation, followed by carpooling with neighbors, and then “Stop a few blocks from school and walk from there.”
This is an amazingly strong endorsement of biking and walking from a public school principal.
I sat down with Breuckman yesterday and asked him to share the primary motivation behind his firm encouragement of biking and walking. His response surprised me:
“It’s a good question and it may not be the reason that most people think, but really my primary reason has to do with community. When I first came here I wasn’t all that familiar with Safe Routes to School. I was aware of it, but not intimately. I hadn’t worked at a school where that had been in place. I thought, ‘Oh fun. Interesting. Cool. Not a bad idea,’ but not much more.
And then I watched what happened — and it involves the people who are a part of this community like Laurie Paulsen, Bryn Dearborn, the PTA President had such energy and worked so hard at communicating and making it possible for families to do this.
There’s no doubt about it that it’s wonderful for childhood obesity, it’s wonderful for having kids a little more awake before they come to class; but for me, watching the community come in, watching the bike trains roll in together, those were fabulous, that’s what makes a school something people will remember.”
You see the trips to and from school as an opportunity to build community that’s not there if you’re in a car?
“Yes. When you come and drop kids off in a car, you have to go through extended extra effort to meet the teacher, or to say hello to other parents and families on the playground. When you ride your bike, it’s that much easier.”
The potential for community building that biking and walking provides is not one of the benefits you often hear about. Beach is lucky to have a principal that understands it.
— Stay tuned for my final story (for now!) about Beach Elementary School where I’ll detail the recent engineering and policy improvements they’ve made in order to encourage biking and walking.