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HOW DO YOU HELP at-risk teens regain their equilibrium, improve their health and reduce their stress levels? It’s as easy as riding a bike — in this case a mountain bike —asserts Keith Sprague. Sprague teaches at Alps View High School in Weaverville, a mountain town in the Trinity Alps. AVHS is a small continuation school for students who are not on track to graduate from traditional high school.

In 2021, Sprague, a member of Trinity Alps Unified Teachers Association, received a $20,000 grant from CTA’s Institute for Teaching to buy 16 mountain bikes for his students. The goal: to help break the vicious cycle of apathy, poor health habits and lack of exercise. He also bought an e-bike for students with special needs.“

“ I am striving to be the
teacher I wish I had when
I was younger. I’ll do
whatever it takes to support
these kids and help them get
back on track.” -Keith Sprague

Despite the pandemic and wildfires, we finally were able to get many of the kids on bikes, using our county’s pristine trails that have always been there just calling to us,” says  Sprague, now in his 17th year as a public school educator. “It was very emotionally moving for me as a teacher to see these students, who are often unmotivated, enjoying a hands-on, outdoor activity with smiles on their faces.”

The idea came about when he was talking informally with his superintendent who asked, “Wouldn’t it be great to see some of these kids on mountain bikes?”

I took that as a ‘yes,’ and applied for the grant,” says Sprague.

Riding the mountain bikes during school time counts as physical education. It also ties in with building confidence, social-emotional learning and encouraging healthy habits.

“When we take a break on our mountain bike rides and find a shady spot and get comfortable, we have some open conversations while admiring the beautiful terrain,” he says. “Many of these kids suffer from stress, trauma and anxiety. Some have issues related to substance abuse. When I began teaching here, I came to the realization that I can’t touch their academic needs until I start focusing on their social-emotional and physical needs. The mountain bike program is definitely helping with that.”

Tenth-grader Trinton Gillespie says it’s an “awesome” experience.

“I love it when we get to ride trails that I have never been on before. I definitely focus more on my schoolwork, so I don’t lose the opportunity to ride while at school.” Sprague used part of the grant money to purchase professional bike repair tools. His students operate a bike wash, lube and flat-tire repair station for other students and community members, and they keep the bikes in his program fine-tuned.

He created another program, Project Dragon Paws (in honor of the school’s mascot)for the 25 students in his classroom. It started when one student smuggled a kitten into class.

“I noticed the calming effect that it had on students and thought, ‘How can we incorporate this into our classroom?”

Sprague formed a partnership with Trinity County Animal Shelter, which brings animals to the school. Alps’ students feed, care for, socialize and play with them. They photograph each animal and run a social media campaign to help them get adopted into forever homes.

“Now in our third year, Project Dragon Paws is not only a huge highlight for our students, but it has also afforded them an opportunity to give back to their community.”

“Project Dragon Paws has created a more positive environment in the classroom,” says 12th-grader Julie Vela. “It has lowered my anxiety levels and taught me a sense of responsibility.”

Sprague, who grew up on the East Coast, experienced many of the challenges his students face.

“I didn’t care about school, barely graduated high school and had my share of troubles in school. My students pointed out this makes me ‘one of them.”

After graduating from college, he worked briefly as a correctional officer, became a teacher and was also a principal for several years. Three years ago, he decided to work with the student population that needs him the most — and came to AVHS.

His next challenge is creating a garden that will also serve as an outdoor living classroom and a source of nutritious food for his students, who often come to school hungry and craving healthy food.

“I am striving to be the teacher I wish I had when I was younger,” says Sprague. “These are not ‘bad kids.’ It’s just that their learning has been interrupted. And I’ll do whatever it takes to support them and help them get back on track.”

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