Cedar Lane students implement equine into education

BENTON HARBOR — Before Jordan Dunifin got involved in Reaching for the Reins, the Cedar Lane Alternative High School student said she was considering dropping out of school.

Dunifin recalled how grim things seemed to her more than a year ago, when she was greatly behind on her academic credits and nowhere near thinking about graduating. But Friday, as she groomed the chocolate colored coat of a horse named Nash, alongside her peers at the Circle “C” Farm, it was easy to see how far she had come.

Dunifin is now a straight A student on track to graduate this spring. On Friday, she was one of 11 students who demonstrated lessons learned through Reaching for the Reins during a public showcase at the Benton Harbor farm. Several school administrators, including Niles Community Schools Superintendent Dan Applegate, attended the event to observe.

“[I enjoyed] just standing here today and listening to the students tell their stories, how they have grown, developed and built their confidence,” Applegate said. “Many students also mention growth in self-esteem and you see that. You can see the leadership, compassion and awareness about themselves. It is a truly amazing transformation.”

Angelecque Thornton, a program facilitator and Cedar Lane teacher, said students can earn one credit hour from completing the program. The service learning program teaches students how to groom, saddle and take care of the horses on the Circle “C” Farm. But students learn more than that — they also learn about leadership. Cedar Lane students teach what they have learned to special needs youth from the Lighthouse Education Center. The students also tackle a number of community service projects. This year, students volunteered at the Hunter Ice Festival and created fleece blankets for Berrien County foster children.

Before they can participate in the program, students have to complete an application and interview. While enrolled, they must comply with academic guidelines, pass five out of their six classes and meet attendance recommendations.

“What we do here is try to motivate them in a positive way and build their communication skills,” Thornton said.

The program was first offered at Cedar Lane 11 years ago, after Tara Carlsen, a Cedar Lane teacher, came up with the idea. Since then, Thornton said an anonymous donor has been supplying funds to cover the cost of the program. The school is currently trying to acquire some grants to help fund future costs, she said.

Like Dunifin, other students shared similar stories of inspiration through their involvement with Reaching for the Reins. Jacob Norris, a soft-spoken senior whose height reaches more than 6  feet, said before the program he had never had the opportunity to work with animals. He said, he too, was behind on his academic credits before he got involved in the program.

“You were not motivated,” said Norris’ peer Blake Spurlock. “Now you are.”

Student Sydni Sweet said she did not know what to expect when she applied to be in Reaching for the Reins. Since joining the program, she said she has learned a tremendous amount, including how to be confident. After graduation, she said she hopes to return and work with Reaching for the Reins.

“It is a miracle place,” Sweet said. “We all have our faults, and here you can work through them. I feel like a whole new person.”

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