Bikes and braids: How one school district is teaching life skills, too

Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Updated: 8:34 a.m.

Fourth grader Ali Butler loves doing hair.

"I just like to do it. It makes me feel happy,” said Butler, 10. “And I just don't like when people look like a hot mess."

Hair styling is what Ali wants to do when she grows up.

Kids smile while sitting in chairs in a cafeteria.
Ali Butler, 10, attended the Braids and Bikes event Tuesday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

"I have a mannequin. I do it on my friends, I do it on my family. I try to do it everyday so I can get better, and better and better,” she said on a recent evening in the crowded gym of Riverside Central Elementary School in Rochester, Minn. 

Ali is a bit of a hair expert. She's just finished braiding her teacher's hair. And her own hair looks pretty great, too. 

But hair care — especially for textured hair — is not something that comes naturally to everyone. And this event at Riverside is meant to teach kids and their parents some basic skills. 

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It's a lesson that fits squarely into Riverside's mission as a community school — a teaching model that goes beyond academics and incorporates skills students might not otherwise be exposed to — like snowshoeing or creating art installations. At Riverside, students have access to a resource room where food, clothes and other basic supplies are free to take home.

Kids smile while sitting in chairs in a cafeteria.
Riverside Central Assistant Principal Erin Rahman fixes a young girl's hair at a table in the school cafeteria.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

And instead of teachers just doing the work, Riverside and Rochester's six other community schools bring in experts from all over, often inviting parents and family to participate, too. 

"We really want to make sure we're there for families,” said Melissa Brandt, transitions and fostering connections coordinator for the school district. This is the second event the district has put on in a community school — and she says turnout has been unexpectedly good. 

“We know, if kids are healthier, they're able to come to school more and if kids’ … needs are met in other ways, then they're able to engage in learning,” she said.

Looking and feeling good

An adult helps braid a child's hair.
Hairstylist and business owner Folashade Oloye styles Aliyah Jackson's hair Tuesday at Riverside.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

In the gym, hair salon owner Folashade Oloye tied tiny, tight braids into Aliyah Jackson's hair. 

As she worked on the 14-year-old’s hair, she offered a suggestion for keeping her hair healthy. “I told her she needs to get her ends trimmed because she's trying to grow her hair out, so every 10 weeks she should trim a little bit,” Oloye said.

Aliyah's mom, Samantha Jackson, who is white, appreciated the advice. 

“I don't have that hair texture so I really don't know how to keep it moisturized and looking good,” said Jackson.

Hair care is partly about building confidence and self-love, said Oloye, who urges her clients to love their hair and embrace what they have.

Kids smile while sitting in chairs in a cafeteria.
Analys Rivera, 10, has her hair brushed and braided by Hoover Elementary School staffer Nashauna Johnson-Lenoir.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

She also wants kids and parents to see hair salons and barbershops as a place of community and support. 

“Sometimes, someone might be on the edge of just pure, you know, depression or anything like that. And once they leave they're feeling so much better about themselves. They’re looking good, they’re feeling good, and they feel uplifted when they're with me,” she said. 

Teaching life skills

An adult helps a child ride a bike in a parking lot.
Jo Anne Judge-Dietz of Olmsted County Public Health gives instructions to Tevon Jackson, 8, on a bike course chalked on the playground pavement.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Outside the school, kids are biking through an obstacle course set up by the district's Safe Routes to School program. 

Much like hair care, biking is one of those basic skills that some kids may struggle to access, says Kara Merrill, a community schools coordinator at Ben Franklin Elementary School, another community school in Rochester. 

“Riding bikes is a big one, it's a transportation tool,” she said. “There's a lot of safety that goes along with it. And so we figure, ‘Why not teach kids and anyone who comes the skills of riding a bike, as well as how to care for your hair and style your hair?’”

An adult helps a child ride a bike in a parking lot.
Rochester Police Officer James Marsoleck helps Jameson Smith get started riding a bike at the event.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

For Anthony Smith, this bike clinic is perfect for his son, Jameson, 7.

“We're trying to get him on the bike. He's just not good with the balance, I think,” Smith said. 

And just like that, Jameson zips by Anthony and his wife, Jennifer.

“Good job, awesome buddy!” Anthony yells after his son. 

Correction (May 31, 2022): An earlier version of this story had misspelled names in photo captions for Folashade Oloye and Jameson Smith. The captions have been updated.