In a portable classroom behind Westbrook High School, seven students are hard at work repairing bicycles.

“I can’t tell you the name of a tool to save my life,” admits Harley Baker, as she straightens the wheels on her purple BMX. “But I can show you how to put a bike together.”

Westbrook High School is believed to be the only public school in Maine, and one of just a small number in the country, where students can earn high school credit for learning how to build and maintain bicycles.

The bicycle class gives students practical skills. They learn about physics and math through hands-on problem solving. Students who are homeless, dealing with alcoholic parents or otherwise at risk of dropping out have a reason to stay in school and keep working toward graduation.

“If I’m having a bad day,” says Harley, a junior, “I come out here and work on a bike.”

Eleven years ago, the school’s alternative learning program began fixing a small number of stolen bicycles donated by the city’s police department. Jon Ross, then the director, said the main purpose initially was to provide bikes to Westbrook children who couldn’t afford them.

Shannon Belt began teaching in the program in 2007, and the bicycle class has grown steadily since then under his leadership. Local bicycle shops and other businesses have donated money and equipment, or provided it at wholesale rates. The school secured the portable classroom when a Westbrook elementary school closed three years ago.

This year, for the first time, the bicycle class was offered for elective or science credit to any Westbrook High School student.

“It’s a great crossroads for mainstream kids and alternative education kids to work under one roof,” said Ross, now the high school’s principal. He hopes the class will continue to grow so that eventually it can produce free bicycles for every Westbrook child who needs and wants one.

Belt, the teacher, is a lifelong bicyclist. He has worked part time at Gorham Bike and Ski, and he is trained as a bicycle safety instructor. He’s 37, tall and lean, with curly brown hair and a single earring. On a recent day, he wore a short-sleeved, navy work shirt sporting a wrench-shaped logo for Westbrook Rehab Education ‘N’ Cycling Hub (WRENCH), the bike program’s name. Students who complete the class get a WRENCH shirt with their name embroidered over the pocket.

Belt’s low-key style seems to connect well with students. He gives as little instruction as possible, and lets students know that it’s OK to fail.

Students who struggle academically often shine in the bike class. “You’re using your brain in a different way.… They can take a look at a bike and it makes sense,” Belt said.

Students have the use of a fully stocked bicycle shop. Tools are neatly arrayed on pegboards lining the walls. Cabinet drawers are filled with grips, brake pads, crank bolts and other bicycle parts. At any given time, as many as 200 bicycles wait to get repaired, donated or sold to raise money for supplies.

Belt has given the class his all. He worked with a school social worker and students to gut, paint and retrofit the portable classroom. When he hears about free bicycles available to the class, he’ll rent a U-Haul and drive as far as Brunswick to pick them up on his own time.

Belt is helping students build a trail between the high school and nearby Oxford-Cumberland Canal Elementary School. He takes them for rides there in the spring.

Every April, Belt brings a group of students to the Great Maine Bike Swap in Portland to sell bicycles that they’ve fixed up. They interact with the public and experience bicycling in a larger context. Belt hopes students will see bicycles as a viable mode of transportation rather than just a toy.

Belt spent a week with students last fall volunteering at BikeMaine, a 350-mile trip organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. In return for setting up and taking down other bicyclists’ tents each day, the students biked and explored new parts of the state. Belt, a licensed school bus driver, convinced the Westbrook district to let him drive a yellow school bus for the week to haul the students and their gear.

“He’s a really involved teacher,” says Harley. “He really cares about us.”

Belt considers himself lucky to have a job that lets him share his love of bicycling. For part of each school day, he says, “I’m greasy and get to laugh with kids.”

Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected]