The idea was “born in the barn” according to Meghan Riley who works in the stable of Tony Rengstorf but also has an education degree and has taught in the US and other countries. She would often meet children of other backstretch workers who were having trouble completing homework or families having difficulty navigating through the educational system. “It’s a very transient community and kids and families are always coming and going,” she said. Riley recognized a need, and along with cohort Melissa Burgess, formulated a plan.
Rengstorf approached Minnesota HBPA director Mike Cronin on their behalf. “Tony told us he’s got a couple of people that want to start a tutoring program,” Cronin said. A presentation was made to the MN HBPA board. “We were really impressed,” he said and then the board went to work determining how to make it happen and provide funding. Thus Furlong Learning began.
Many race fans are not aware that the backstretch of a racetrack is a community full of families with children of all ages. They live and work together and have the same needs as any community would. “It’s the village,” Riley says. “They are in it together.”
It is that spirit that Riley and Burgess have found encouraging as they hold tutoring sessions in the chapel on the backside at Canterbury. Riley was immediately amazed by the students and “how committed and enthusiastic about showing up for learning every day” they were. “The families have been so supportive.”
“Literally I think they are batting a thousand as far as attendance,” Cronin said. “All the kids that have started the program have not missed one course.”
The teaching team knew going in that availability and flexibility was crucial. Life on the backstretch is not uniform. Hours vary depending on where you fit in. “We operate according to their schedules,” Riley said. “We tailor it to each individual child and family.”
Furlong Learning serves a wide range of students from Pre-K through high school and also has an ESL component for adult learners. Cronin indicated that a plan for distance learning is in the works that will allow students to continue getting the assistance they need when the race meet ends and families disperse to the next racetrack.
“You need an education if you’re going to have a good life,” Cronin said. “It’s especially difficult for kids who are on the backstretch.” Furlong Learning is helping to fill the gaps. One indication of the success of the program is that many of the children, when asked, recognize that skills they are learning or honing this summer will help them in the classroom when school begins.
“We are a bunch of teachers and kids that prefer our dusty boots to a desk,” Riley said.