While most high school teachers have been busy preparing lesson plans and squeezing in last-minute vacations before the start of yet another pandemic school year, Andre Higginbotham is winding down his summer break running all over the Bay Area on the hunt for second-hand dirt bikes.
He’s preparing for the debut of a slightly unconventional and very cool after-school program at June Jordan School for Equity: motorcycle mechanics. The program, the first of its kind in the city, was piloted in 2019 with about 12 students. It was viewed by those involved as a significant success, but it ground to a halt when COVID-19 shut down schools in 2020. This fall, despite continuing uncertainty about school reopenings and what the year will hold, Higginbotham is ready to roll again.
“It’s been a dream I’ve been toying around with forever,” Higginbotham says. “At a certain point, you have to either stop talking about it or just do it.”
With “what seemed like a lot of zip ties and duct tape” and generous support from the local “bike life” community, Higginbotham converted a high school classroom into a full-fledged, up-to-code mechanic shop featuring six dirt bikes. About 15 students, who receive school credit for participating, will learn the ropes of motorcycle maintenance. Higginbotham is tentatively dubbing the program BRAAP (Beginning Riders and Aspiring Professionals), referencing a slang term that evokes the sound of a dirt bike revving.
Incoming junior Raquel Kee, who goes by her middle name, Chevy, grew up in a family full of dirt bikers and started riding when she was six. She says she was “super excited” when she heard about the program. “For me, to have a dirt bike and not know how to do anything to it seemed kind of, you know, sad.”
Kee signed up as a freshman for the pilot program and brought her own 150F Honda to work on. She was the youngest mechanic-in-training and one of only two girls. Now, Kee says, she can replace tires, change the oil, and clean the carburetor. While she doesn’t think she wants to be a professional mechanic, she appreciates that she doesn’t have to “go running to somebody else just to change my oil.”
Motorcycle programs at public high schools are few and far between. Higginbotham, a longtime bike life enthusiast, admits dirt bikes can be “obnoxiously loud” and “obnoxiously dangerous.” And then there’s the legality issue — dirt bikes, a subcategory of motorcycles that are classified by the state as off-highway vehicles, are not technically street legal in California.
But Higginbotham strongly believes the motorcycle mechanics course can serve as a gateway to learning for disengaged students and help them build valuable career skills.
“These students, whether they know it or not, are in love with physics, they’re in love with thermodynamics, they’re in love with mechanical engineering,” says Higginbotham, who was a self-described “absurdly horrible” student. “At the end of the day, we’re developing their passion for these things.”
It makes sense motorcycle mechanics would find a home at June Jordan, a small, alternative public high school in San Francisco that Higginbotham says runs by its own set of rules. “June Jordan was founded as the school that will be different,” Principal Nichalous Archibald says. “We want to provide as many options as possible for students, especially those that may not necessarily thrive in a college atmosphere. We want to give them tangible experiences that might lead to an income right after high school.”
Located at the edge of McLaren Park in the Excelsior District, the school serves predominantly working-class communities of color with a focus on social justice and community building. BRAAP taps into a “huge culture crush around bike life” in the neighborhood, Higginbotham says.
Urban dirt biking, which took off in Baltimore and Brooklyn, has seen a massive resurgence in the Bay Area over the past decade and a half, surfacing in pockets throughout the region. The neighborhoods around June Jordan are a hot spot.
“If you go to the east side of town — the Excelsior, the Bayview, Sunnydale, Portola Valley — it’s huge,” says Higginbotham, who is something of a neighborhood figure (outside of teaching, he runs the popular Excelsior Coffee shop with his wife.) “Literally, if I just stepped out of my door right now, you wait a couple minutes and you’ll see a kid fly by on a dirt bike.”
Higginbotham sees the program as first and foremost a community-based organization “for our neighborhood, for the kids in this neighborhood.”
Approximately half the students Higginbotham has worked with through the motorcycle program were already familiar with dirt bikes. “We give them the experience, but we give it in a really safe, monitored way.”
Archibald noted the program has had a positive impact on attendance rates. “There were a couple students who weren’t really coming to school,” he says. “But once they connected with this program, they were coming to school again.”
BRAAP drew inspiration from George Washington High School’s well-established, career-oriented car mechanics program, which Higginbotham is heavily involved with. He hopes June Jordan’s motorcycle maintenance class eventually also can serve as an incubator for aspiring mechanics.
“We’ll get a student that knows absolutely nothing, you show them a hammer and get this sort of question mark look. And then at the end of two semesters, they know the basics of motorcycle design and operation, engine rebuild, and most importantly, how to work in a shop and be safe.” Dirt bike riding lessons with a certified instructor are part of the long-term vision of BRAAP.
Another primary focus of the program is opening a pathway for more women and people of color to join a sport with a lot of monetary and social barriers; motor sports in general are expensive, heavily white, and dominated by men, Higginbotham says.
Funding for BRAAP at first was nearly nonexistent. “It’s really come down to begging, borrowing, and stealing,” Higginbotham jokes. The school set up a GoFundMe page in March to raise money for bikes, tools, and spare parts. So far, it’s reached a little over $4,000 of its $25,000 goal. You used to be able to get a used Yamaha TTR 125 (the “bread and butter” of the June Jordan program, because they have just enough power for beginner bike handlers) for between $1,200 and $1,500, Higginbotham says. But a COVID-induced surge in dirt biking has kicked up those prices.
While there’s been some pushback from parents and local community members — in March, a local 18 year old was killed in a motorcycle crash in McLaren Park — for the most part, the program has been well received. Kee says her dad was “hella happy” when she joined the program; he even bought her all the tools she needed.
Urban dirt biking has stirred some controversy in the Bay Area in recent years; residents, bikers, and drivers have complained about dangerous exhibitionist riding by groups of dirt bikers who blow through stop signs and pop wheelies on 101.
But Higginbotham emphasizes this bad rap doesn’t capture the entirety of bike life culture. “It’s kind of akin to skateboarding in the ’80s and early ’90s in the sense that it was frowned upon socially. A lot of people don’t really know how to handle it or address it.”
For the first couple weeks of the program, the curriculum focuses solely on shop safety and how to operate hand tools correctly. “Safety is our number one priority.”
Higginbotham has never heard of a similar motorcycle mechanic program, and he hopes BRAAP can eventually lend itself as a model for other school districts in places with active bike scenes.
“I really think we’re breaking new ground here,” he says.