Framingham schools turn to bikes as alternative way to get kids to school

Zane Razzaq | MetroWest Daily News

FRAMINGHAM — Grasping the bars of his new bike, Elton Sanger, 14, weighed whether he should paint it all black with splashes of orange and green.

Those were the colors of his recently stolen bike, which was snatched weeks ago while he was staying late after school to practice piano. He considered buying another, but then a better option came along — a free one as part of a district effort.

"Bikes aren't free and they're definitely not very cheap," said Elton, an eighth-grader at Fuller Middle School.

Over the past two weeks, about 100 Framingham middle school students were given free bikes, helmets and locks, thanks to a partnership between the district, local nonprofits, and small businesses.

Read more: Bus driver shortage leaves Framingham families in transportation limbo

These bikes aren't just a childhood right of passage. They're a pilot solution to a problem that's emerged with more prevalence in the Framingham school district lately: Students who are not eligible for bus service need a reliable way to get to school. 

In Elton's case, as he lives within a 2-mile radius of Fuller, he does not have a seat on the bus and will turn to his new bike to make the trip to school easier.

'I wonder if there's more kids'
The idea started when Magaly Rivera, a Fuller Middle School counselor, learned about a student struggling with attendance due to transportation issues. Due to busing vendor Durham School Services struggling with a driver shortage, the district has had to limit the number of students who get a seat on the bus.

Rivera reached out to Assistant Superintendent of Equity, Diversity and Community Development Joseph Corazzini to see if he could secure the student a bike.

"I was working on getting the bike and then I was thinking about it: 'I wonder if there's more kids,'" said Corazzini.

There were.

The transportation office identified 400 students in the same predicament, said Corazzini. They whittled the list down to a more manageable 100.

They include students like Elton, who will now turn to his new bike to make the trip to school easier.

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Brandale Randolph, founder of the 1854 Cycling Company, helped the district navigate its way around a challenging bike shortage and disrupted supply chain, as demand has skyrocketed during the pandemic. He began searching for an international manufacturer who could fill the order inexpensively. Corazzini recalled being added on emails of specifications from Taiwanese manufacturers.

After evaluating quotes from different makers, Randolph connected the district with Charles James of CrimsonBikes in Cambridge, who in turn secured the bikes from Benotto, an Italian company that makes bikes in Mexico.

Watching kids receive safety training where they learned how to glide, brake and signal to other motorists on Friday, James called his inclusion in the effort exciting, saying his business’ hope is to fill needs that traditional transportation is not meeting.  

“This is the best realization of a dream I can imagine,” he said.

The United Way of Tri-County and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest each committed to helping fund the cost of the bikes. Safety trainings were provided with help from Massachusetts Safe Routes to School, a program of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The state program also connected the district with Breakstone, White & Gluck, a Boston law firm that helped buy the helmets with Project KidSafe.

The district covered the rest of the cost with grant funding. In all, the effort is estimated to cost about $22,000.

A limited solution
Beyond getting kids to and from school, Corazzini said the bikes can open up new opportunities for students, calling them "a tool of empowerment."

“If they master it, they can get to parks, they can get to summer programs, they can get to their jobs. It opens up the city for them,” said Corazzini.

Middle schoolers were targeted because administrators felt they often don't have the independence or resources of other students. If elementary students need a ride to school, their parents will drop them off, and high schoolers can hop on city buses, Corazzini noted.

"If you're in middle school, you're kind of in that in-between age," he said.

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There are limitations to the pilot, such as kids being unable to ride their bikes in the winter.

“It’s not going to be the end-all, be-all. It’s not going to resolve all of their issues,” said Corazzini. “But for this moment in time, it’s going to resolve the issue.”

Advice for other districts
James, the founder of CrimsonBikes, noted that the effort would not have happened without many different people coming together to problem-solve. For other districts looking to pursue something similar, he said "don't be afraid to ask for help."

"Go for it, explore it," he said.

Corazzini agreed, saying he'd encourage other districts to reach out to entities beyond their school.

"Too often we try to resolve issues in-house without looking at our community partners. There's no way we can do that, because our kids and our families and their needs extend way beyond what the schools can do," said Corazzini.

Zane Razzaq writes about education. Reach her at 508-626-3919 or Follow her on Twitter @zanerazz.