At Santa Barbara Middle School, afternoon classes are anything but reading, writing and arithmetic.
When the bell rings at 1:30 p.m., kids ditch their notebooks and pencils for mountain bikes and helmets, surfboards and wetsuits, skateboards and kneepads.
It’s part of the independent school’s outdoor education program -- one of only a few like it in the country. In addition to daily classes in various sports and outdoor activities, students take part in three weeklong biking expeditions each year, in which they learn important life skills such as teamwork, leadership and respect for nature, educators say.
Cumulatively, Santa Barbara Middle School students have logged more than 1 million miles on their bikes since the program started in 1976.
“Are they learning math? Absolutely,” said Headmaster Stephen Lane, a former competitive road and track cyclist who also teaches science. “But the question is, can we do more for them than just teach them math?”
Another unusual factor is that the school covers only the sixth to ninth grades. That way, it can cater to children going through the often-rough middle years of adolescence. Its small size -- about 167 students -- means everyone knows each other, and relationships with teachers are more friendly than authoritative (they are addressed by their first names).
Instead of sending vulnerable eighth-graders directly to high school, which is the way of most intermediate campuses, the school keeps them through ninth grade, when they take on a leadership role for the rest of the student body.
“By 10th grade, they have a much better sense of themselves, and now they are ready to succeed,” Lane said.
But the key component of the school’s philosophy is the outdoor classes, Lane said. While every youth is unique, most kids 12 to 15 have at least one thing in common: boundless energy.
“Some of these kids are growing inches by the day -- it physically hurts for them to sit in chairs at desks for six hours,” said teacher Jim Brady. “We use that changing energy instead of fighting it.”
All academic work takes place in morning learning blocks, from 8:20 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., after which students break for lunch. The total weekly class time is on par with most public schools, Lane said, but it frees up the afternoons for students to take elective classes ranging from art and music to bike maintenance and mountaineering.
On Fridays, they get to leave campus for classes at the local skateboard park, surfing lessons at the beach and biking trips on nearby trails.
Last week, all the school’s students and teachers returned from a biking and kayaking expedition in Morro Bay. In the spring, they will climb Mt. Whitney, camp in Los Padres National Forest east of Santa Barbara and bike through the American Southwest touring Anasazi ruins.
“There is a lot of learning that goes on,” Lane said. Students confirm that notion.
Wit Jette, 14, a fast-talking ninth-grader with a pierced lip and a tattoo around her arm, is captain of the “bike monkeys,” the crew of students who tune up the students’ mountain bikes before trips and repair them on the road. On campus, they run their own bike repair shop with help from teachers.
On the trips, Wit says, she has learned how to mentor timid sixth-graders and manage groups of people -- not to mention the ins and outs of fixing disc brakes.
“It gives you the mental capacity to deal with things you’ve never done before,” she said.
Cameron Casey, 14, is one of six Santa Barbara Middle School students who traveled on bicycles with two teachers and a young filmmaker across America this summer in the tracks of Lewis and Clark’s historic expedition. The group, which called its trek the “Corps of Rediscovery,” was the first to use newly created maps following the route of the explorers’ cross-country expedition, which began in 1804.
Cameron rode his bike for four months -- close to 5,000 miles -- across nine mountain passes and through four national parks.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” said the shy ninth-grader. “It makes you appreciate everything that’s out there, and gives you a different perspective.”
The school -- housed in a century-old Catholic seminary behind the Santa Barbara Mission -- was founded in 1974. The outdoor education tradition has evolved with the times, from hiking to road cycling to mountain biking. The only rule is that the learning remain “experiential,” Lane said.
The middle school’s academic program is accredited by the California Assn. of Independent Schools, which encompasses about 180 private schools statewide. Most of the students at the Santa Barbara campus go on to public high schools and then four-year colleges. But because the middle school is private, the experience comes at a cost: $14,000 a year in tuition. About one-fourth of the students are on financial aid, and the tuition includes the cost of all the trips.
In line with its focus on outdoor sports, the school puts a high premium on being environmentally conscious. On all the water fountains are neon green signs that say, “Count your blessings: This water brought to you by the Lake Cachuma and Gibraltar reservoirs.”
On a recent Friday, teacher Kelly Rosenheim dumped out a can of garbage in front of students to show them all of the plastic, aluminum and paper that could have been recycled. For a week, she said, a group of “recycling ninjas” would patrol waste baskets.
Next week, the school’s ninth-graders will board a 90-foot boat to explore the Channel Islands, while doing reports on ecological issues ranging from fisheries to kelp forests.
Parent Pam Hull, whose eighth-grade daughter, Emma, attends the school, said she has been happy with the mix of academics and outdoor trips.
“You have them go through a rigorous physical program at a time in their lives when it’s really important to develop self-confidence, so they have a direction and sense of themselves before they go off to high school,” she said. “We’re trying to give them power to make good choices.”