Crooked Tree High School named Michigan’s Alternative Education School of the Year

HARBOR SPRINGS – Crooked Tree High School has been named the state’s Alternative Education School of the Year by the Michigan Alternative Education Organization. The school’s staff was awarded the honor at MAEO’s annual conference on May 2, 2024 at Crystal Mountain. 

“To me, this award is about more than our achievements; it is a reaffirmation of our commitment to what is in the best interest of each student,” said Don Heinz, Crooked Tree teacher. “A recognition like this would not be possible without the tireless efforts and investment of our team members, the support of our administration, and the limitless potential of our students.”

Pictured receiving the School of the Year award are (from left) Tracy Beckley, Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates specialist; Kristine Holmes, Crooked Tree teacher; Don Heinz, Crooked Tree teacher; and Jeremy Tollas, Crooked Tree graduate and the school’s math tutor.

Char-Em ISD has operated Crooked Tree High School since September 1998. Heinz, who received the MAEO Teacher of the Year recognition in 2018, has been the lead teacher at the school for 20 years. It is located in Harbor Springs and serves between 20 and 40 students each year. Students come from throughout Char-Em ISD school districts, but predominantly from Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Alanson and Pellston school districts due to proximity of the program.

Mike Haynes, the ISD’s Director of Instructional Services and supervisor of alternative education programs, said Crooked Tree sets the bar high for alternative programs, due to staff commitment to students’ education, flexibility, and knowledge of innovative and nontraditional instructional methods. In addition, Crooked Tree has a virtual learner component that helps support students who cannot participate in full school days due to medical reasons, pregnant or parenting, homelessness, or other reasons. Teacher Kristine Holmes meets students at their home, place of residence, or other alternative settings to assist them with their school work and to encourage them toward completion. 

All of these pieces have made Crooked Tree stand out from their peers, Haynes said. 

“With this award we recognize that learning should be tailored to meet the individual needs of students, with an emphasis on empowering young people to be curious, creative, and have a voice in their education. I am proud to say that these are all evident at Crooked Tree High School,” said Haynes.

During a typical day at Crooked Tree, students are self-paced and working toward graduation credits online, with staff available for instruction and assistance. They are expected to be on time and stay for the duration of the day, unless they have work excusals or are taking classes like career and technical education programs at a neighboring district.

“Our students are incredible, particularly in light of the fact that choosing to come to school here can be challenging in the beginning,” said Heinz. “They have to adjust to having significantly more choices about their day-to-day learning process, as well as being responsible for those choices, transportation, and leaving a school they have been a part of previously.”

Staff regularly coordinates life skills experiences for the students, often bringing in community members to talk about post-secondary career options. Working with Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates specialists, students take field trips to see regional colleges and universities and technical and trade schools, to further their knowledge of opportunities that await after graduation. Students at Crooked Tree also give back to their community, which has been a mainstay of the program and something Heinz insists upon instilling in the students. They can be found each week helping at the Manna Food Project, stuffing backpacks for kids or organizing donations at the facility that helps provide food and household necessities to thousands each year. 

Crooked Tree High School teacher Don Heinz is pictured at the MAEO conference.

Many times through each school year, staff members prepare fun and bonding activities for students, like cooking a huge Thanksgiving meal together, making venison jerky, growing a small herb garden, and talking about future hopes and dreams, said Heinz.

“I think our program works because we really get to know the students, we care about them, and truly want the very best for each and every one of them. Providing all types of opportunities, including program and community-based life skills activities along with the educational academic requirements, gives them a chance to find other interests they might pursue in life and opens their eyes to the world around them,” said Heinz. 

On June 4, 2024, 9 students will graduate from Crooked Tree, a number that varies each year depending on student completion of state-required graduation credits. Those graduation moments are a time for celebration for not just the students, but also the staff, as they recognize the efforts students have put forth to make it to this milestone.

“I am inspired by and proud of our students each and every day. Being allowed to share in their educational journey and watching them succeed in circumstances that might otherwise excuse defeat is always a highlight for me,” said Heinz.

Scott Koziol, Char-Em ISD Superintendent, congratulated the staff and students for the state-level recognition.

“We are fortunate within Char-Em ISD programs to have caring and committed staff members who truly want the best for each student. They put in the work that demonstrates that every day,” said Koziol. “Crooked Tree has long been a model program for other communities, and we are so proud of the recognition as the Michigan Alternative Education Organization’s Alternative School of the Year.”

What is Alternative Ed? Alternative education is a separate program within a K-12 public school district, ISD or charter school established to provide youth a choice when they are not finding success in a traditional public high school.

About MAEO: MAEO was formed in 1975 to provide services and networking opportunities for alternative educators across the state.

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