BATH — One gets the feeling that if Bath Middle School teacher Lawrence Kovacs had his way, kids would be running, paddling, and biking their way to school each day. No cars or buses allowed. Not a bad idea, for at least half the school year.

Kovacs, Sagadahoc County’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, founded the Fundamental Learning on Water Program at Regional School Unit 1, an effort that introduces many Maine eighth graders to camping for the first-time ever. Smart phones and television are replaced with paddling and pitching a tent, building a fire and conducting field studies. For many kids, it’s truly a life changing experience.

Now, Kovacs is focused on introducing middle schoolers to another of life’s pleasures: Bike riding, or, more specifically, mountain biking.

Kovaks recently won a coveted grant from the Specialized Foundation — the only school in Northern New England to receive one of 20 this year — which gifted RSU 1 with 25 mountain bikes as the foundation for Bath Middle School’s “Riding for Focus” program, created by the foundation.

“The Specialized Foundation is doing the science to empirically measure something many have suspected for years: Exercise improves mood, cognition, reduces depressive ideation, improves focus, builds self esteem, creates friendships, makes you smarter,” Kovacs said.

“And cycling is a life-long activity. They are really going about everything the right way. The bikes are high-quality, and they provide excellent curriculum to teach cycling skills. We have tools and supplies for maintenance. We are connected with Center Street Bikes in Brunswick as a retail partner. The Specialized Foundation has just been amazing. I love their mission, and their implementation is well thought out and of the highest quality. We won the jackpot!”

Kovacs, along with two other adults, now leads a group of 22 “Riding for Focus” students on an outing before school four mornings a week, shortly after the sun rises, at 7 a.m. If the pictures are any true indication, the kids arrive at school bright-eyed and awake, the fresh morning air fueling their lungs and brains. All the grant bikes are spoken for, and Kovacs says he has another 60 kids who want to be part of the program.

“We’ll go until it gets too cold or icy,” Kovacs said. “Eventually, I hope to run an afternoon program, as well, and an after school program. Full implementation probably won’t be until the spring of 2019,” he said.

Not one to sit still, Kovaks next applied for — and won — a $2,705 grant from the Bicycle Coalition of Maine to create a “pump track” for bikers in the community. Located between the Bath Skate Park and Bath Middle School, the looping mountain bike track is comprised of dips and banked curves to be negotiated by the biker on sheer momentum — no peddling needed, once you get going.

A Bath Middle School sixth-grader on the morning ride before school begins. Contributed photo

“It takes practice, but once you figure it out it’s a great way to build both skills and full-body fitness,” Kovacs, an avid mountain biker and hiker, wrote on the “Riding for Focus” blog in September.

Two members of Specialized flew out from California to help oversee the creation of the new track, which was dedicated last week. It’s open and free to any biker. When winter hits, bikers will have to wait until spring to use it.

“It will be open depending on conditions,” Kovacs said. “Part of the Coalition grant money will be to buy tools and a shed, so we can have periodic ‘shoveling parties.’ Probably three to five times a year.”

The Specialized Foundation flew all the bike grant winners to their California headquarters for curriculum training earlier this year.

“The trip was mind blowing,” Kovacs said. “The best part was meeting fellow cyclist teachers from around the country, it was super inspiring. We became fast friends. Specialized even lent me a beautiful bike for the week. It’s hard to describe how profoundly cool it was. We also got to attend a fascinating symposium about the effects of cycling on the brain at Stanford.”

Kovaks, who brought robotics to Bath Middle School a few years ago and is currently the director of the RSU 1 Gifted and Talented Program, is already envisioning the future.

“There’s a great deal of collaborative synergy around bikes right now in Bath/Brunswick,” he said. “Many of us in the bike community want to get more kids out on the trails and off their smart phones. I envision this program growing to eventually incorporate a competitive mountain bike team at the middle school and high school; student-driven trail maintenance and lessons in bike repair and maintenance; basically, a mission to get more kids on bikes and empower them to use them for recreation and transportation.”

Kovaks’ ultimate vision: “Bikes will save the world!”

You can visit Kovaks’ blog for updates. To contact him for more information about the Riding for Focus, email him at [email protected].