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NYC High School Students Aim to Make Their Mark at Youth Bike Summit

Each year, students and educators from across the country gather at the Youth Bike Summit to strategize about how young people can make an impact in bike advocacy. This year's summit will be happening in Seattle in mid-February -- the first outside New York City. Students from two NYC high schools are raising funds to make the trip.

Bicycle clubs at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg and International High School at Union Square are working to send a delegation of students to Seattle. At the summit, El Puente's students will present findings from a survey of their classmates about the potential for bicycling to relieve stress. Students from International High School, who are all recently-arrived immigrants learning English, hope to present a film about what bicycling has meant to them both in New York and in their countries of origin.

Both bike clubs have been working with Recycle-A-Bicycle to teach students bike maintenance as part of earn-a-bike programs, and have brought in Bike New York to teach safe riding skills. The after-school groups work mostly indoors in the winter, but when the weather warms up and daylight lasts longer, they go out for rides.

One of the milestones for El Puente students is pedaling over the Williamsburg Bridge on a trip to Manhattan. "I never knew how to ride a bike until bike club," said Marielis Palen, 17, a senior at El Puente. "It took me three rides to finally get comfortable going over the bridge. It was funny because I really didn't want to do it, because I was so scared."

Once they get going, though, the students seem to never stop biking. Last October, a group of El Puente students rode in the Tour de Bronx. They hope to ride in the Five Boro Bike Tour in May.

Joe Matunis, who co-founded El Puente Academy and teaches art there, spent years trying to get the bike club off the ground. He hopes to take students across the George Washington Bridge this spring and eventually on a rail-trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. His long-term goal is to organize a cross-country ride with bike club alumni.

"It's about being independent and having control of your own movement," Matunis said.

This winter, El Puente students have been conducting a survey of nearly 150 of their classmates. Many students, commuting from Bushwick and East New York, are worried about the daily stress of being in high school and have expressed interest in bicycling. But they also cite a number of barriers to bicycling, from fears of being seen as "uncool" by their friends to not feeling safe on the roads. Students are tabulating the results now to be ready for their presentation at the Youth Bike Summit.

At International High School, meanwhile, the Youth Bike Summit delegation is working on a short film about what bicycling means to them.

Meredith Klein teaches math to seniors at International High School. A bike commuter, she started the club after a student came to her with questions about bicycling. "I wasn't sure how many kids would be interested, but it turned out a ton of kids didn't know how to ride or hadn't touched a bike since they left home," she said. The school's curriculum focuses on improving English-language presentation skills, so making a film and presenting it at the summit fit nicely with the school's goals, Klein said, but Seattle is a big stretch.

"They don't have families who can just pay for them to go," Klein said. "Logistically, we have to fundraise everything."

The students are excited about sending club members to Seattle and have already launched bake sales to start raising funds.

"One of the things I learned about riding a bike is you always have to focus," said Ndeye Dieng, 17, a junior at International High School. "When you're a bike rider, you have to focus and you have to never give up."

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