Equestrian Team at KIPP AIM Academy Introduces Students to Horseback Riding

The KIPP AIM Academy horse riding team takes District students beyond the confines of school and the inner city.
By Martin Ricard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Thirteen-year-old Jennifer Jones and 12-year-old Johnice Patterson slowly approached with a large leather bridle over their heads as the horse jerked away.

"Ru-pert," Jennifer said in gentle rebuke as she struggled to show Johnice, a novice, how to properly bridle a horse. For some reason, Rupert was uncooperative.

Their instructor, Lelac Almagor, stood a few feet back, arms crossed and smiling.

"The hardest thing for me is not being able to help them," she said, chuckling, before Jennifer and Johnice finally got the bridle on. It's one of the many jobs they have to do each day before being able to climb on a horse's back.

This is the KIPP AIM Academy equestrian team. Most of the students live in Southeast Washington and come from families of meager means, which would typically make horse riding -- an expensive habit -- off-limits.

But in two years, Almagor, an English teacher at the charter middle school who started the equestrian program, has managed to forge a sort of magnetic, magical connection between the kids and the horses.

By giving them a new kind of challenge, Almagor said, she has been able to take them beyond the confinements of school and their inner-city environment, all the while building character and drawing them closer to the classroom.

"I think the biggest thing about this is, when you come to school, we try to make the point that there is so much out there in the world for you," Almagor said, referring to KIPP's rigorous curriculum, which seeks to prepare all students for college. "We tell them, 'If you work hard and are open to it, there are all kinds of adventures you can have. There's nothing you can't do.' And this is a way of making that real."

The program was inspired by Almagor's passion for horses. While growing up in Stamford, Conn., she spent weekends riding horses in a nearby stable, which allowed her to develop her intensity and release her energy. She said that almost as soon as she started teaching at AIM Academy two years ago, she was interested in starting a program that did the same thing for her students.

Almagor had a friend who volunteered at Hideaway Horse Center in Brandywine. The center agreed to host the students at a reduced cost and donate riding clothes. Not every student gets to suit up, because there's not enough gear for everyone.

Although the team has lost two members since it began, seven students -- five girls and two boys -- remain committed. The team hasn't participated in any competitions, but Almagor hopes to do so in the near future. And some students have found a new passion.

Jennifer was so inspired by horse riding that she wants to compete professionally when she gets older. She was accepted at a boarding school in Maryland where she could pursue her riding dream, but, even with financial aid, her family could not afford it.

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