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CPS teacher running ‘therapy horse’ program gets $100,000 grant

Beneath a shelf holding sun-bleached cow and horse skulls in Maggie Kendall’s classroom, a tabby cat nibbled food spilling out from a dispenser. A few feet away, a python slithered inside a glass tank and Brady, a yellow Lab, jabbed its nose into a student’s belly.

“You can’t find a place anywhere like this in Chicago,” says Remy Escoto, one of Kendall’s animal science students at Chicago High School For Agricultural Sciences on the Far South Side. “A cat walks across your desk — it’s an everyday thing.”

The men and women in suits from Farmers Insurance who on Wednesday stepped delicately across the horse pastures just outside Kendall’s classroom would surely agree with Escoto’s take on his teacher. Farmers awarded Kendall a $100,000 educational grant — one of five the company gave nationwide — to help her build an indoor horse arena.

“When we heard what Maggie was doing, it truly stood out versus anything else we had seen across the country,,” said Kirk Parker, head of Farmers Great Lakes territory.

What Kendall is doing depends on the day. Her kids might be pawing through animal feces for signs of parasites. Or checking a horse’s vital signs. Or trying to figure out when their pregnant goat needs to be vaccinated. The grant money will go toward building an indoor facility for “therapy horses,” which help students deal with everything from autism to paralysis.

“Our goal, first of all, is that students have fun,” says Kendall, who gave up her teaching job at Walter Payton College Prep three years ago to run animal sciences at the South Side school.

In the warmer months, 10 students now ride the therapy horses two to three times a week, Kendall said. It’s frequently too cold to ride in the winter, which is why the new arena is needed, Kendall said.

Kendall, 38, grew up in rural Illinois. She has her own horse; that’s part of how the high school lured her away from Payton.

The person who hired her said, “’Just so you know, you could keep your horse on campus,’” Kendall recalled. “I was like, ‘Ok. Done.’”

It’s perfectly natural — even in a big city — for kids to be close to animals, Kendall says. She talks about Shane, who is autistic and came to her program 2 ½ years ago.

Back then, Shane barely spoke a word. Now he talks non-stop – about movies, horse riding, you name it.

And then there’s the case of a freshman girl who came to “the barn” two years ago. The girl, from a broken home, would routinely pick fights with other kids and often yelled at her teachers. The day they met, Kendal asked the girl if she wanted to groom one of the horses.

“She started grooming him and she broke down, and was sobbing into his neck,”

Kendall recalled. “And she’s never left since.”

Two weeks ago, Kendall went with the young woman to look at colleges.

“This year, she does [school] tours,” Kendall said. “They actually call her out of class to do tours.”

Kendall hopes to have the arena built by later next year. She says it will be open, after school hours, to people throughout the city.