When Melissa and Andre Wright gave horseback riding gear to their 6-year-old daughter Aaliyah for Christmas a few years ago, little did they know what they were starting.
"I was looking for something for her to do," recalled Melissa. "We bought her five lessons, a helmet and boots."
Aaliyah, now a fourth-grader, has always liked animals in general and ponies specifically, Melissa noted.
"She absolutely loved the lessons," she said. "After the five lessons were up, she kept begging and begging to go back."
The Wrights bought a pony for Aaliyah, and she began to work out with a trainer -- which was carefully observed by brother Andre, who is three years older.
"My son was like, 'I want to try it!' So we bought a second pony," Melissa said with a laugh.
She pointed out that these ponies are large -- most people would refer to them as horses. The family lives in Pleasanton and boards the ponies at Diamond Hills in Livermore.
Soon Aaliyah and Andre were competing in equestrian events, and the entire family began traveling to shows and invested in a truck and a horse trailer.
"We drive to wherever is necessary and get a hotel room. Or we rent an RV and stay on the property," Melissa said. "It's a big commitment."
"We have a really good group of girls at the barn that we ride with -- we are like a family; we travel and stay together," she added.
Now the whole Wright family speaks the hunter/jumper lingo.
"So far my daughter's biggest accomplishment was she was high point champion, doing four or five courses in one day. It was all adults, and she got the champion ribbon," Melissa said. "My son was group champion on the same day. They were at the same show but with different rankings, different classes."
As the Wright children began to ride several hours a day and compete in shows that were five or six days straight, it became obvious that their schooling needed to be flexible. They are also active in 4-H.
"I didn't want to home-school them but I didn't want to hinder them," Melissa said. She and her husband have their own company so she works from home.
She thought of virtual schools but had reservations since she had heard that their students could not go on to college. Then an online search three years ago brought up California Connections Academy @ Ripon.
"California Connections Academy answered my phone call," she remembered, and staff satisfied her concerns.
The school, which opened in 2012, is under Ripon Unified School District with state-credentialed teachers and is tuition-free. It has students in grades K-12 in the counties of Alameda, Amador, Calaveras, Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Clara and Stanislaus. Most students choose online studies due to outside activities, such as acting or training for the Olympics. Others may have infirmities that make it difficult to attend a brick-and-mortar school.
The Wright children enrolled that very year.
"The kids log in, and the teacher goes over a lesson," Melissa explained. "There are PowerPoint presentations, and a chat box for the kids to chat among themselves. They have microphones so they can talk to each other, and headphones to listen."
The first year they went on field trips with the school every Thursday, where they met the other students and the teachers. They still go on school excursions regularly. And there is testing throughout the year, including for P.E.
"For the most part, we try to stay on a routine. We get up, get ready for the day, feed the animals -- pigs, goats, chickens. The animals get fed before we do," Melissa said.
"We start school work at this point, around 9-9:30. We eat lunch a little bit after noon, and we are generally done about 1 or 2 at the latest," she continued.
"Then we have to work with the animals or go off to lessons, riding, basketball practice or whatnot. If it is horse show time, we do the school work before we go, after the show or when we come back. We have so much flexibility."
Melissa said she couldn't be happier with their online schooling. And she still seems surprised by their equestrian life.
"I thought it would be a hobby. I figured she'd take a few lessons," said Melissa, herself a former member of Campbell FFA (Future Farmers of America). "I didn't know anything about competing at this level. Never did I think we would be traveling around competing in horse shows."
But Melissa is pleased by it.
"I tell the kids all the time that I'd rather buy them an opportunity than material things," she said. "It's definitely appreciated, and these are things they'll never forget."
Andre also plays basketball, tennis and lacrosse. But Aaliyah is hooked on horses.
"My son is a little less invested, but my daughter would like a lifelong career with people paying her to ride ponies," Melissa said. "I actually pay people to ride my ponies, so it's not a farfetched goal."