When she was a high school student about 20 years ago, Brandi Weintraub was falling behind. She tried three different alternative high schools within the Oakland Unified School District, but couldn’t find a way to connect with the school. When she transferred to Oakland Street Academy, an alternative high school for students who have been expelled, have dropped out, or are at risk of not graduating in a normal school setting, she felt like it could work; it was small and “very hands on,” she said. She liked the school and the teachers.
But one day a boy who liked her threw a desk on her head. Weintraub, who at that time was 17 years old, liked the boy as well—but she fought back, she said. The teacher tried to stop the fight and Weintraub accidentally broke his wrist. “It was my favorite teacher,” she said laughing regretfully at the memory.
She was expelled.
But the teachers and counselors “knew my name and enough about me,” Weintraub said, and they reached out to her after she left. They asked if she wanted to help with their “Horses On the Hill” class in Oakland, an elective course that took place in a stable nearby. The course included both classroom and hands-on activities and it gave Weintraub her first opportunity to work with horses, which had always fascinated her. She also got to build relationships with the other students, and to learn the basics of taking care of animals and the principles of horsemanship. It was the beginning of a passion and the foundation of her dream to start her own program involving horses and at-risk students—although she didn’t know that yet.
After Weintraub agreed to participate in that class, she petitioned to return to Street Academy, and was allowed to do so. Although she never graduated high school, Weintraub, who now is married and has a three-year-old daughter, has a B.S. from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles. Now “I truly see the value of my alternative education experience,” Weintraub said. For the last five years, she has been working on her own program, involving horses and at-risk students from the East Bay, called City Horse. That’s “how I pay that forward,” she said.
City Horse will help alternative and continuation high schools partner with nearby stables—preferably no more than 25 miles away—to offer a 12-week program for students who will earn academic credit for learning the basics of taking care and riding the horses. The first partnership will be between Oakland Street Academy and Alta Vista Equestrian Center in Hayward.
The idea behind the program is to prevent teenagers from dropping out of school and to keep them engaged with an activity that can potentially change their lives, something that Weintraub experienced firsthand. She believes these animals can teach humans about discipline, self-esteem, confidence and behavior.
Horses help “with your self-awareness,” because you “think of someone other than yourself,” Weintraub said. The weekly program will work with 20 to 25 students and will aim to teach the basics of taking care of a horse–from how to clean the stable to how to feed and approach the animals.
The first class will be an introduction. One horse will be assigned to each student, so they can “read them,” said Lisa Robinson, manager and trainer at Alta Vista, a boarding and training facility. Robinson also does rescue rehab, with horses that have been abandoned or hurt. She hopes to match the students with rescued horses “that are broken too.” Then the question, she said, would be: “Who rescues whom?”
When Weintraub explained her idea for the City Horse program to her last year, Robinson said, she “fell in love” with it from the beginning. “There are so many kids that need help out there,” she added.
The City Horse advisory board includes Carla Hill, a math teacher and tutor who has taught at Street Academy; Max Weintraub, an enforcement officer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and researcher; and Bill Eddings, a retired president of a labor union and a horse trainer who has supported various youth programs related to horses.
Eddings was also the person who introduced Weintraub to her first horse and taught her how to ride. “She’s a good cowgirl, probably one of the best around,” he said. In fact, Weintraub has competed in a variety of equestrian competitions: barrel racing, gymkhana, team penning, ranch sorting and cutting.
The City Horse program is expected to launch around April, when all the pieces come together. The last piece to the puzzle is funding.
Weintraub said she is exploring several ways of funding the program, mainly based on private donors and fundraising events. Because the program will be free for students, City Horse will pay the stables a “very reduced rate,” she said. However, Weintraub is convinced that more opportunities for funding will come up once the community knows more about the program. For that reason, the plan is to launch a pilot program first, involving about 10 students, she said. Other ways of supporting the program include sponsoring a horse or a student, volunteering at the stable and even donating rubber boots.
For now, City Horse will start working its partnership with Street Academy and Alta Vista. But this is “just the beginning,” Weintraub said. Her program high school already received a support letter from Monica Vaughan, director of Alternative Education for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). “City Horse will introduce many of our students to horses for the first time, and we believe that confidence, discipline and focus gained from this work, translates to better attendance and performance in school,” wrote Vaughan on January 20.
In the letter of support, Vaughan wrote that most OUSD students enter Street Academy either “because they are falling behind, they dropped out or are expelled from other high schools.”
“My hope is that as City Horse is implemented, we are able to standardize the curriculum to enable adoption by OUSD and expand City Horse to other OUSD alternative and continuation high schools throughout the district,” she added.
In the meantime, Weintraub will try to reach out to more schools and stables to help her build a “bridge,” she said, for students who otherwise wouldn’t have the access to this kind of outdoor program, either because of a lack of money, accessibility or both. “I’m very optimistic,” Weintraub said, adding, “I think that my optimism alone is not enough. We need to have optimism from the community as a whole.”