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Former Teacher Raises Academic Scores Using A Little Horse Sense

Dennis Parker, part Cherokee, loves to teach—and he is fond of horses. Never in his wildest dreams did he think these two passions would come together, but they have in a most unusual way.

After Parker retired from the California Department of Education, the former teacher and administrator launched a private consulting business to help California schools improve their Academic Performance Index (API) scores—a numeric measurement from 200 to 1,000 assigned to individual public schools based on how well—or not—students score on standardized tests.

His proven, theoretical technique that he calls “Strategic Schooling” has been in great demand by public schools in several states because it works. Parker says about 85 to 90 percent of his clients have seen significant gains in their API scores.

About the same time he started his consulting business, Parker began riding horses and adopted two wild mustangs that he tamed. One day he realized the same methods he uses to establish a relationship and trust with his mustangs could also be used in the classroom to help students perform better on tests.

“It’s like training horses; you don’t break them, you teach them,”the 68-year-old Parker, who has worked with up to 100 K-12 schools a year, said. “I didn’t start out using horse training as a major avenue to fix schools, but now it’s just one more thing I have in my tool kit.”

The teacher-turned-horse-wrangler, who lives on his ranch in Zamora, California, with a stable of 11 horses, sat down with Indian County Today Media Network to talk about his equine-inspired teaching methods.

Dennis Parker and Buck give a demonstration to Woodland High School.

How does horse training play into your teaching methods?

I work on relationships as much as I work on the curriculum. My approach involves three things. First, you have to get students to like you. So before I start teaching, I try to get a relationship going with kids by chatting them up about something that has nothing to do with math or language arts. I spend five or six minutes saying, “So this is your class, huh? Is that all your work on the wall? How many got up before 6:30?” It’s exactly the same thing I do with my mustangs. When I first get a horse in an arena, we just walk around; no reins, we just roam freely. So we’re chatting each other up, too.

Once you establish trust with your students—and horses—what’s next?

Then I have to get students to do something for me so they will respect me. Unless you can get another human being to do something at your request, you don’t have respect. So with kids, you get them to repeat after you, get them to learn something that’s fun to do—that’s getting respect. “I need everyone’s eyes up here. Thanks! That’s perfect.” With horses, they’ll be galloping one way and then I’ll ask them to change direction, then do it again. Now I am getting respect because I am making the horse do something at my request.

What’s the third step to building a rapport with both students and horses?

Get them to engage with me by giving them some voice and choice, some say in their day. Like saying to kids, “I have a blue pen and a green pen. Anyone prefer me to use the green pen?” With the horse, if I want him to back up and he doesn’t want to do it, I’ll wait, and then ask the horse again. Then I’ll wait and ask again.

What can a horse teach a teacher?

The horse is always 100 percent in the moment. They don’t think about the future or the past. Their survival depends on them being in the moment. There’s been some research that teachers who are more “with it” and are more observant in their classroom end up having better classroom management and better results than teachers who are clueless about what is going on in their classroom.

Dennis Parker

Dennis Parker is seen here with Luna, who is taking her first steps wearing a saddle.

Give a specific example of a technique that works well with both horses and students.

Both horse trainers and teachers who are in the moment will reward the “try.” If you’re asking the horse to back up, you push on its lead rope saying, “Back up for me.” When the horse gives you the slightest try, then you release and pet the horse on its neck. If you notice every single little try and reward it, and ask for a little more next time, you can be backing that horse up in about 10 minutes. The basic principle is, “If you can get ‘em to do anything, you can get ‘em to do anything!” In the classroom, I’ll notice the kids who aren’t with me and make eye contact or walk over to that side of the classroom. I’ll notice the kids that got it and give them acknowledgement with my eyes or a little thumbs up. Bad horse trainers and bad teachers miss the try all the time.

What has been your greatest success story so far?

I would say Artesia High School. When I first started working with them, they were a 594, and after six years of averaging a 28-point gain per year, their API score was 765 in 2011. I’ve also worked with schools that were ranked extremely low and are now distinguished schools.

Do you ever invite teachers or students out to your ranch?

I have held about 40 training events at the ranch for faculty leaders and administrators—and eight annual Principals Summits. The focus of these events is training in the latest research-based strategies to accelerate the achievement of disadvantaged students in order to close the achievement gap. I always try to pull out a mustang for a 30-minute demonstration as part of each event.

Dennis Parker

Dennis Parker's ranch in Zamora, California is seen here in September 2013.

How did you capture two wild mustangs?

You can get them from the Bureau of Land Management. They gather these horses and you can adopt them. I ended up with three mustangs and learned to train them by going to clinics, reading books and watching people.