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Detroit — Michael Craig's vision of a horticulture program for special education students began four years ago with a few vegetable seeds in plastic cups inside a classroom.

Today, Craig and his students at the Drew Transition Center have established The Garden at Drew, a year-round, award-winning program that has spread to 48 outdoor garden beds, hoop houses and an entire school gymnasium where rows of hydroponic growing tables sit on the ground and adorn the walls with greens in the middle of December.

Craig started the horticulture program at Detroit Public Schools Community District to combat early-onset diabetes and child obesity through healthy food. Over the years, the program has turned into teaching moderately to severely impaired students ages 18 to 26 skills in horticulture that lead to employment opportunities.

"It's just taking a chance on these students and giving them an opportunity," Craig said.

Craig is now being recognized for his intensive efforts to expand the program and create new opportunities for special education students. The state education department has named Craig a first-round member of the Innovative Educator Corps.

The Innovative Educator Corps is a new recognition program for Michigan teachers who use an innovative educational program, methodology, or strategy to help prepare their students for future careers in high-demand fields, state officials said. It is part of the Marshall Plan for Talent, a partnership between educators, employers and others to transform Michigan's talent pipeline.

Students at Drew, a center-based school that services young adults who have disabilities, learn how to seed, harvest and winterize gardens and grow vegetables indoors. Students from across the disability spectrum participate, including hearing impaired students. Those who can perform manual labor in the fields while other students with limited dexterity have school aids to help them do the work.

The program provides produce through an in-school farm stand, donations to food pantries and sales at Eastern Market. Craig has collaborated with chefs in Detroit's farm to table restaurants, hospital culinary programs and other organizations seeking to source organic produce.

"I wanted special needs kids with wheelchairs because for the most part they are in their classrooms six house a day just sitting. These kids can do if you are creative enough to help them with their skill level," Craig said.

The MDE program, which provides $5,000 to expand, replicate and share Craig's program, might be the way to tell Michigan these kids are here and we need to find opportunities for them, Craig said.

"Transitioning from work study to full-time employment, that is another animal we are trying to combat," Craig said.

Craig said other districts can replicate his program if they have the dedicated staff, someone to run the program, funding, a room to grow and support from their district.

"The bigger aspect is getting the exposure out that districts have this program so the business community actually takes a chance at hiring students," Craig said.

The Drew Horticulture Program is the only program in the country that addresses student growth as academic achievement through a special curriculum program, Craig said.

Lessons are linked to Chicago Botanic Garden's programs for school and community-based horticultural therapy and urban agriculture education with lessons designed specifically to support the full inclusion of people with disabilities.

Drew special teacher Barbara Abay-Abay brought her math students into Craig's horticulture room in December where they spent the hour transforming Christmas tree cuttings into festively decorated displays. The items, adorned with colorful ornament and velvet bows, will be sold at the school's holiday market.

"They come in here and work with nature. It's nice to come in here and see things grow," Abay-Abay said. "It's nice to let students who are more ambulatory work with the other students. They are amazed to see how they help each other."

Abay-Abay said the recognition Craig is receiving is well deserved.

"He is such an innovator. He gives 100 percent. It shows in his students," she said. "A lot of these students were in a self-contained classroom, and he worked with teachers pulling them out. There is no ceiling as to what they are capable of doing."

Innovative Educator Corps members also receive a $5,000 stipend as recognition for their innovative instruction.

Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said Michigan needs to take innovative and effective teaching practices and share them with every teacher in the state for Michigan to become a Top 10 education state in 10 years.

“Teachers play a key role in preparing Michigan’s students for successful futures and developing innovative ways to deliver instruction ignites a passion in students to learn and be innovative themselves,” Alles said.

The first round of Innovative Educator Corps members also include:

  • Jeffrey Austin for the Skyline Writing Center program in Ann Arbor Public Schools
  • Rebecca Shankster for her fifth/sixth-grade STEM program in Durand Public Schools
  • William Renner for his computer science and technology-driven classroom at Hastings Area Schools
  • Ann Swinehart for the Engineering Design Process program at Comstock Public Schools
  • Carrie Warning for her Discover E (Engineering) Program in the Genesee Intermediate School District
  • Michael Miller for the Makerspaces for K-5 students program in Otsego Public Schools

jchambers@detnews.com

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