Math teacher Tara Carlsen holds a model horse given to her by Cedar Lane students as a gift celebrating Carlsen’s fifth year running the Reaching for the Reins program. Submitted photo

Archived Story

Donation extends Niles service learning opportunities

Published 5:12pm Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Niles math teacher Tara Carlsen has a knack for getting through to the sometimes hard-to-reach students at Cedar Lane Alternative School.

Six years ago, she spearheaded a service-learning program called Reaching for the Reins, which allows students to learn about horses over a period of several weeks, then teach what they learned to a group of special needs students.

The results were staggering, as participating students consistently came to class more often and passed more classes than students not participating in the program.

After measuring that success, Carlsen wanted to extend service-learning opportunities to students in Niles’ other alternative learning programs — adult education and WAY Niles.

Thanks to a recent anonymous donation of $20,000 from the Phoenix Fund, Carlsen was able to turn her idea into reality.

Carlsen said the money is allowing her to spend half the day teaching and the other half coordinating service-learning programs for Cedar Lane, Niles Adult Education and WAY Niles. She can do this because the district is using the $20,000 donation to hire a part-time teacher to fill in for Carlsen when she’s gone.

Carlsen said she is excited about being given the opportunity to extend programs such as Reaching for the Reins to other students.

“It’s going to open a lot of doors for the kids and adults,” Carlsen said. “With Reaching for the Reins, I realized that being involved in service learning does so much for them. It builds their self esteem, encourages them to participate better in a team, builds leadership skills … because of that they do a lot better in school.”

Last year, Carlsen said Cedar Lane students participating in Reaching for the Reins had an 18 percent higher rate of attendance at school and passed 28 percent more classes than students not participating in the program.

Cedar Lane students will continue participating in Reaching for the Reins, while students in Niles Adult Education will be participating in a community outreach program called Stable Paths. WAY Niles students will help socialize and work with animals at the Berrien County Animal Shelter.

The service learning programs begin next month. Carlsen said she hopes to include WAY Forward students in the near future.

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