By Christy Scannell | SDUN Reporter
Third-graders at Franklin Elementary School in Kensington gathered in the auditorium on Dec. 6 for a bike safety lesson from a San Diego police officer. Behind him was a black youth-style bike with a big bow on it. Someone would win the bike at the end of the workshop, the kids were told.
After the policeman finished, a man in a business suit who had donated the bike came forward. A name was drawn and all the kids clapped enthusiastically for their fortunate classmate.
Then the man’s wife wheeled in a second bike—because the kids had done such a good job in school, the man said. Another name was drawn and another winner eagerly claimed his prize.
By the time the third bike was rolled in, the kids were chanting, “One more bike! One more bike!” The prize was granted to the third name drawn.
And that’s when things really got good.
After the children quieted down, the man in the suit smiled and said, “You know what? I think everyone here is going to get a bike today.”
The curtains on the stage flew back to reveal 40 shiny, new bikes – one for each third-grader at Franklin Elementary.
“It was a very, very special moment,” said Jean Small, Franklin’s principal. “Some kids were hugging each other and high-fiving. Teachers started crying. Even the police officer teared up.”
The surprise giveaway was coordinated by Bikes for Kids, a foundation that financial planning guru Bill Pollakov—the “man in the suit”—and his wife, Debbie, started in 2001 to reward high-achieving schools in disadvantaged areas. To date, the organization has donated 23,000 bikes in San Diego County, including 1,500 this holiday season.
Small said the recognition was a fitting cap to what has been two years of growth for the 250-student school. A former San Diego County teacher of the year, Small arrived at the school to find only 35 percent of the students were reading proficiently. That number is now 54 percent. Meanwhile, the school’s Academic Performance Index – which measures a school’s progress based on student testing—rose 54 points, from 768 to 822. In the last year, 40 of the 200 students classified as English learners have advanced to being proficient speakers and writers.
“We still have a long way to go because we won’t be happy until we have 100 percent of our students at proficient and advanced,” Small said. “But the achievement gap is narrowing and we are quite proud of that at Franklin.”
Part of the challenge arises from the school’s location. Although Franklin is geographically in Kensington, Small said most of the school’s students come from City Heights. Seven languages are represented among the students, of whom 49 percent are Hispanic and 27 percent are Indochinese, with the rest falling into the variety of races that makes up the neighborhood known as San Diego’s melting pot.
“We are getting new students all the time from all walks of life,” Small said. “We recently registered two students from Haiti. We get kids from homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters. And just a lot of single families trying to make it.”
With so many needs, Small said she and her staff encourage anyone who wants to help Franklin students, whether that be with learning or with life’s basics. Price Charities provides an onsite family counseling and student mental health office. Big Brothers/Big Sisters is also active at the school.
“We feel very successful at motivating kids and focusing on the specific needs of our students,” Small said.
Franklin Elementary is just the type of school Bikes for Kids looks to identify, Debbie Pollakov said.
“We are really targeting the area of great kids who are needy in schools that are showing improvement,” she said.
Pollakov and her husband, who live in Poway, launched the charity as a straightforward way to give back to the community. Every year they seek money from friends and accept donations via their website. A board chooses the schools that will receive the bikes, and then the surprise visits are arranged, usually as part of a bike safety seminar similar to the Franklin event.
“We decided on third-graders because that’s just a great age to get a bike,” she said. “It’s a great program because the kids have no idea and they are so grateful.”
Bikes for Kids works with a Chinese manufacturer to supply the bikes and helmets, whose total value is $75. However, the bikes are delivered in boxes and require assembly, which creates another opportunity for outreach, Pollakov said.
“The real beauty of this story is the community building of the bikes. Parents, custodians, military and community members all come together to help,” she said. “So it becomes their project as well, giving to these third-graders. It is so beautiful how it trickles down and ties so many community layers together to support these kids.”
Monetary donations are rolled 100 percent into purchasing bikes and helmets.
Pollakov said the organization has never found raising funds a difficulty.
“I honestly think that’s because it’s so simple and everyone can identify with a bike,” she said. “People can give at any level, whether that is a few dollars, a big check, building bikes or helping children ride them.”
Why bikes? Part of the reason is personal—Bill Pollakov was raised by a single mother under meager conditions and didn’t have his own bike until he was 16. But the other is practical.
“It’s something [the recipients] have pride of ownership over and a sense of responsibility. It’s also the opportunity to maybe get away from a home that’s not a good place to be and go to the library or the Y or to an after-school program,” Debbie Pollakov said. “A bike is a ticket for them to open their wings and have that wind blowing in their hair.”
Lalique Wilson was one of the third-graders who received a bike at the Franklin assembly. But instead of selecting a color she might like, she chose red for her brother.
“I gave my brother Salik a bike for Christmas because he never had a bike before,” said Lalique, who is one of 11 children in the family. “I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to give it to him. His favorite color is red. So I picked a red bike.”
Her mother said she was proud of Lalique’s selflessness toward her 6-year-old brother.
“She has a bike so she came home with a red bike and said she had picked it out for him,” she said. “I told her that was nice. Christmas is about giving, not always about getting.”
Principal Small said she was thrilled to watch as parents accompanied their third-graders to pick up their new bikes after school.
“Not one person turned the bike down,” she said, explaining that she had been worried some families might decline the free bikes out of pride or embarrassment. “I’m sure for some this might be their only present for the holidays.
“It was a wonderful experience we’ll never forget here at Franklin.”