My visit to Central Commerce's new bike mechanics class

Central Commerce, a school in downtown Toronto, has launched an innovative course for students to learn the basics of bike mechanics. Last week I met with the period one class and teacher Ravi Mohan-Sukhai to learn how the course is coming along.

I met Ravi in the otherwise unused basement of Central Commerce where he was happily moving from student to student, helping them with their bike project. Twelve students in each of three daily classes meet in the basement of Central Commerce Collegiate Institute in Toronto, learning the basics on donated bicycles and parts. During the course they will fix up not only a bicycle for themselves but up to five other bikes that will be sold off to support the program.

There is a waiting list and the students clearly love the change of pace from the usual sitting in their desks, listening to teachers talk. One eager girl, Fahmeda tells me she also likes the hands-on aspect of the elective class and that she'll get a bike out of it at the end of the course. Omar signed up for the course soon after starting at the school, eager to learn the basics of bike mechanics.

Ravi is supported by two assistants, Matt Draimin and Eugene Chao, both Curbside Bicycles mechanics, who both come almost daily to help students with their bike education.

The bicycles are stored in empty classrooms in the basement and in the empty swimming pool. The bikes were provided by the Cabbagetown Youth Centre (CYC) to Central Commerce, which in turn were donated by the government to CYC as a settlement in prolific bike thief Igor Kenk's court case. Many of his thousands of stolen bikes that he bizarrely stored in garages around the city were unclaimed and were eventually given to CYC so they could be refurbished for youth. The bikes are finally being put to a good use.

Ravi, Matt and Eugene have sorted the bikes into those which are more easily refurbished, the bikes to be used for parts in the appropriately named "Boneyard", and those to be dealt with at a later date. Despite the large numbers of bikes donated, there are still a lot of supplies to be purchased. For this Ravi's approach has been to sell some of the refurbished bikes back to the community (there will be a spring sale coming up) and to offer bike repair to school staff. Ravi registers each bike with the Toronto Police so they're aware that these bikes that were once stolen now have a legitimate life.

Each semester Kristen Schwartz from Culturelink teaches bike safety to the students, gives them a helmet and a bell. Many of the students might not have been aware of road rules. They will follow it with a ride.

The class got quickly organized last fall as the thousands of bikes were sent to be stored. Instead of just letting the bikes sit, the school principal, Iwona Kurman, quickly organized for Ravi to be hired and gave him space in the basement to teach the elective. Given that the focus of Central Commerce is commerce, the class will eventually have a broader focus that will also incorporate an interdisciplinary study of environmental issues, physical activity, business and science.

The class, the first of its kind in the Toronto District School Board, started last fall with just two students but quickly grew as word got around. Ravi has been designing his own curriculum to meet the particular learning needs of high school students and to keep the students on top of the quirky needs of bicycles in need of various levels of work. All the bikes will require overhauling the bearings, brakes and gears but some will have more serious issues with the frame, broken drivetrain or other issues. The students - with the help of Matt and Eugene - are taught to identify such issues.

The object is not to produce bike mechanics; some students may end up working in the bike industry, but some will use the hands-on mechanical concepts as a foundation for other technical trades. And others may find that they are using their new bike to go to school or run errands and be able to repair their own bicycles. The course can help student become more mobile, more self-reliant and give them an understanding of mechanical systems like the common bicycle.


Looking for parts in the Boneyard


Ravi's office


Working bikes


The parts of the wheel


Matt providing tips on front brake


The bike mechanics class


How to assess for damage


Working on brakes


Eugene teaching Omar

Comments

What a fantastic initiative, and a story that shows that something good can come out of something disgusting (Igor Kenk's "legacy"). Thanks for sharing this! These students represent the active transportation advocates we need to cultivate in Toronto. I hope this program continues and is replicated throughout the GTA. Kudos to all involved.