Grant builds upon, supports organic gardening program at Crooked Tree High School

Growing student skills at Crooked Tree High School
Grant builds upon, supports organic gardening program at alternative high school

Crooked Tree High School students spend considerable classroom time learning academics as they work toward earning their diplomas, but teacher Don Heinz also works to ensure they learn hands-on, employability and life skills as well. A recent grant to the alternative high school in Harbor Springs will provide even more opportunities for real-world learning – from the ground up.

The school recently received a $2,000 Building Resilient Communities grant from the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. With the funds, the school installed two sets of wall-mounted vertical planters and LED grow lights to maximize empty wall space while saving the school’s limited floor space. Soil, seeds and gardening tools were also purchased. 

For Don Heinz, Crooked Tree teacher since 1998, this is an extension of work that has been under way to develop a healthy environment at the school that serves teens who haven’t found success in traditional high school settings. 

“We have worked hard to develop a holistic approach to student and staff wellness at Crooked Tree,” said Heinz. “We are improving the nutritional value of food made available to staff and students, promoting healthy food consumption, and incorporating nutrition and healthy life skills education into our class work. These are real tools that our students can take out into the world with them when they graduate from our program. I’m so proud of them for embracing these ideas and help us grow them.”

Students Anna Harsfield, Barbara Moore, Candice Munson and Jack Reasoner agreed that the grant is making a difference already, noting “we are already using fresh herbs in our meals, and we’ve made dried apple and grape snacks that are really good and healthy.”

Building Resilient Communities is a pilot program of the Groundwork Center that connects resources to community needs, based on the principle that a small investment can have an outsized impact in strengthening aspects of the local food system. Promoting consumption of healthy, local foods sets students and their families up for a healthier, longer life. 

Crooked Tree High School students and its staff looked to the grant and the framework of its requirements as a way to further instill healthy lifestyle choices in the teens who often benefit from social and emotional supports, credit recovery, and a flexible, online learning environment. 

Click the image to access the PDF of the grant report.

“Historically, the ‘crooked tree’ was a guidepost and a meeting place for the local Odawa tribe,” said Heinz. “Our school embraces the symbolism, as our students are often at-risk of not graduating or face other challenges to stability. Providing opportunities like those outlined in this grant help to expand our students’ horizons and guide them to think about careers and community connections that will support them after they graduate.”

Culinary education is an area where many students can excel, Heinz noted. Because the school doesn’t offer a meal program, Heinz recently began a healthy start breakfast project with local food sources. This spurred the development of a school food pantry that students can utilize at any time during the school day. The Building Resilient Communities program will build on those structures in place by now teaching the students how to grow and cultivate fresh herbs, including basil, chives, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, lavender, lemon verbena, thyme, parsley, fennel, sage, mint, tarragon and red butterhead lettuce. 

To process the herbs and vegetables, Heinz also purchased a food dehydrator. Tools that help with preparation, storage and display of healthy food in the kitchen make mealtimes easier and encourage healthy eating choices. Cookbooks and student reading materials accounted for the remaining grant funds. Posters detailing the various uses of the herbs will soon be hung near the wall planters. 

Students Chloe Stahl and Alyssa Sullivan noted, “We think the appliances, tools and herbs will lead us to more culinary experiences moving forward, and that is a good thing!”

Heinz has also established a connection with Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey to help educate the students about organic farming and cultivation of crops like their herbs. Field trips on-site show the students these skills in action and how they can provide a career and income as well. 

It’s all part of the school’s mission to develop the whole child into a successful adult.

“I believe public perception of alternative education has seen a shift over the years, as more people come to understand programs like Crooked Tree as positive forces in young adults’ lives,” said Heinz. “Expanding life skills programming in the areas of agriculture, nutrition and culinary arts not only enhances student learning and career outcomes, but it may also increase positive community awareness of alternative schools like Crooked Tree.”

To Heinz, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing his students excel. “Every time I see an at-risk student rise above the challenges he or she faces, I am continually inspired by just how remarkable my students are,” he said. “Watching them succeed in circumstances that might otherwise excuse defeat is the ultimate highlight of my career.”

Crooked Tree High School is operated by the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District. For more information, visit or call the school at (231) 486-0136, or email

Read the grant report




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