Huntsville Middle School to Riding for Focus program

Eric Blocker (left) and Staci Williamson discuss the Huntsville Middle School’s new Riding for Focus program during an announcement at the school’s open house last Thursday.

The Huntsville Middle School will offer the Specialized Riding For Focus program involving bicycles this fall, just the second school in Arkansas to do so.

The plan was unveiled last Thursday during the school’s open house for students and parents.

According to outridebike.org, “the program integrates cycling into the physical education curriculum as a means to help students achieve academic, health and social success.”

Principal Matt Ferguson pulled the curtains back on the cafeteria stage Thursday, where 20 shiny bicycles sat. The moment drew audible gasps from students and adults alike.

Kids in grades 6-8 can sign up for a six-week course to learn about bicycles. The first group will start the third week of school, Ferguson said. The students can sign up through an adviser during the SOAR program, which meets between third and fourth periods at the school.

The biking program will be conducted Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the SOAR hour.

The bikes were put together at The Bike Route in Fayetteville. Jay Easterling from the shop addressed the crowd last Thursday. Ten more were to be delivered to the school this week.

Local biking enthusiast Eric Blocker first floated the idea of the program to middle school officials last year. Unfortunately for him, most of those officials either moved to other schools or retired.

Blocker on Facebook wrote, “What a great end to a long journey! Tonight, the Huntsville Middle School unveiled The Specialized Ride For Focus program. I can’t even begin to say how happy I am for our school district.”

Blocker a year ago told Ferguson, the incoming principal, about the program, but the new principal was hesitant to spend money. Blocker told him the school wouldn’t have to spend money for the program.

Blocker worked with Anya Bruhin with Bike Northwest Arkansas, based in Bentonville, who put him in touch “with the right people.”

Private donations were met by The Specialized Foundation and the school had its biking program.

Bruhin showed a video Thursday to explain the program and its benefits. She said the program stresses about 20 minutes of “elevated heart rate” time for the students.

“I wish that every school had this program,” she said afterward. “I’ve done a lot of research into kids’ programming, specifically bike programing ... everybody said, hands down, this is spectacular. From the equipment to the way the curriculum is lined out to their core values, it is amazing. I am so excited that Huntsville Middle School gets to be the first in the area to do the program.”

In his Facebook post, Blocker thanked Ferguson “for believing in the program and listening to a rather ‘persistent’ cycling champion.”

Staci Williamson will be the lead teacher for the new program. Kaleb Houston eventually will incorporate bike riding into his physical education classes, as well.

“I actually taught it when I was at Springdale,” Williamson said after the open house. The district’s head volleyball coach teaches eighth-grade history at HMS, but will add a section of physical education this year. She also will teach other P.E. teachers about the biking program.

“Thirty kids will be able to do it every six weeks, between sixth and eighth grades,” Williamson said. “We’ll kind of walk them through, basically teaching them how to ride a bike. There’s about 10 different lessons that we put them through. Eventually, we want to get them to ride off campus a little and around the campus as well.”

Williamson said the exercise will benefit the students in various ways.

“Exercise in general helps kids focus in learning,” she said. “They’re sitting in a desk all day, so any chance for them to move is going to help them get their energy out. It helps with students who have ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) or obesity or just aren’t getting that social connection that they need, so biking is going to help solve all three of those problems right there,” she said.

The Specialized Foundation will provide around $30,000 toward the project, at no cost to the school district.

Bruhin said, “focusing on something like a bicycle that requires a lot of fine motor skills, it requires you to literally focus on the bike in order to do what you need to do. It just activates different parts of the brain that may have been asleep from the night before. It just wakes different parts of your brain up and gets you ready to solve problems later on.”

The Bob and Betty Courtway Middle School in Conway was the first school in Arkansas with the program. The program is in 130 schools in 45 states and Canada.

Ferguson after Thursday’s open house said he’s happy to see the program at HMS.

“I’m just really excited about it. Eric Blocker really pushed me to get it started. It’s a $20,000 to $30,000 program and they all got funding together and funded it,” he said. “I just think it’s a great opportunity for our kids to get outdoors more. The research shows it’s going to help them focus and it’s going to help them academically. I‘m just excited to see the results of that.”

The cost was a major factor when Blocker first approached Ferguson.

“That was a big deal for me,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t want to be spending that kind of money coming in my first year as principal here. He assured me that it would be covered and he’s pulled through.”

Ferguson said the program will be about more than just riding a bike.

“Kids will sign up for a six-week time frame. They’re not only going to ride, but they’re going to teach them how to maintain the bikes and fix a flat tire and change the chain and fix things on the bikes,” he said. “That’s the fun thing about the program is that it’s available to any of these kids, even if they’ve never touched a bike.”

Ferguson said he likes the idea that 120 kids in P.E. classes and the ones who sign up for a six-week program will share in the effort.

“It’s going to be good. It’s going to be just another opportunity for kids to get involved in something and I think that’s what we need,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said a student can sign up for a six-week course, but they won’t be able to stay longer.

“We’re going to cut it off at that six weeks. If you’ve been in the program for six weeks, we’re going to open it up to a new set of kids because we want to try to get every kid up here on a bike if we can.”

Blocker after the open house he immediately had parents and students approach him for more information. He said watching the curtains pulled back to show the bikes was a special moment.

“I was ecstatic,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming. Seeing something done for the community is amazing.”

Blocker said a year ago, the program hit a stumbling block at the middle school.

“They had a huge turnover at this school. Everybody I was working with either moved or retired and left Matt holding it,” he said. “We already [had it] in the works and he just didn’t know about it. It was no fault of his own. Me being me, I just stayed on him and told him this was a really good deal.”

The Specialized Foundation is still matching local funds.

“The basic funding came from private donations and the foundation met everything. No money came from the schools. I want to make sure everybody knows that,” Blocker said.

The project’s website says, “Riding for Focus provides a combination of cycling, fitness, and academic performance, all while instilling a lifelong passion for cycling for students who participate in the program.”

It stresses safety, fun, fitness, success, independence and confidence. Williamson took training for the course in California this summer.

“The Riding for Focus grant will supply bikes, helmets and equipment required to run the cycling program,” the website says.

Blocker also helped to organize Huntsville’s first bicycle team, which will compete in mountain bike events beginning in September. Several team members wore their jerseys to Thursday’s open house.

Huntsville will be part of the Arkansas National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).

MADCO (Madison County Cyclists) will be a composite team of students in the sixth-12th grades, both male and female.

The team’s first race will be Sept. 7-8 at the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs. Other events will be Sept. 28-29 at Spring Hill in Barling; Oct. 19-20 at Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in Bentonville; and Nov. 2-3 at Cedar Glades in Hot Springs.

The cycling team practices at Mitchusson Park, including the skills park that Blocker helped to get installed.

For details about the school’s first-year biking team, visit Madison County Cyclists on Facebook.

For more information about the new program at HMS, visit outridebike.org.

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