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Planting the seeds of innovation

How a food studies teacher created one of the most unique CTE programs in the country.


Tags: Company News, Blog Article, Pathfinder

Photo of Melissa Tracy

When Melissa Tracy first proposed bringing a community garden program to Odyssey Charter School, a K-12 school in Wilmington, Delaware, she didn’t exactly have a green thumb. “I had zero gardening experience,” says the food studies and social studies teacher.

But what she did have was a passion for food justice. Tracy wanted her students to understand the importance of ensuring everyone has access to fresh, healthy food. And what better way to connect learners to the food system than by having them grow and donate produce themselves?

That first growing season yielded a bumper crop of leafy greens — and so much more. “There is an educational component [to the community garden program]. There is a therapeutic component. But it really helps kids make important connections,” said Tracy, one of three winners of McGraw Hill’s Pathfinder Award in 2023. “It just clicked for me: We need to do more of this type of programming for students and have all students benefit from it.”

Seeing the world through the lens of food

Building off the success of the community garden program, Tracy created a food science program in 2018. It’s offered exclusively at Odyssey and is considered one of the most unique career and technical education programs in the country.

In it, students learn culture, history, power, the environment and more through the lens of food. Classes run the gamut from a foundational plant science course to a course on public health to next year’s “Future Food,” which will examine the friction between climate change and the food system. There’s also a chance for learners to earn dual-enrollment college credits.

But the beating heart of the program is food justice. “I tell students that service learning is the curriculum,” Tracy says. “It’s what we do on a weekly basis.”

Thanks to $300,000 in grants and funds she’s secured over the years, the community garden program has expanded into a full-fledged eco-school infrastructure. The vegetable garden is now 1,000 square feet with 34 raised beds. There’s also an extensive hydroponic lab program, a vertical garden with 200 planters, and an urban farm with three goats and 16 egg-laying hens.

These additions give students opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom while also providing meaningful ways to address food insecurity in the community. Every month, they grow 3,500 vegetables on site. So far, they’ve donated more than 7,000 pounds of fresh produce and distributed more than 6,000 culturally relevant meal kits to families in need. The rest of the food is consumed by Odyssey’s nearly 2,000 students.

Photo of Odyssey Charter School’s community garden.
Odyssey Charter School’s community garden.

Tips for innovating in the classroom

Adding gardens, an urban farm and a new educational program takes time, effort and, just as crucial, buy-in from school administrators. Tracy has suggestions for educators to consider if they’re trying to get a project off the ground:

  • Seek out spaces where you can be innovative and creative. “Some of it comes down to treating educators as professionals and allowing them to be creative and not micromanaging them,” Tracy says. “That element of trust has to exist, because that’s where you can do the work of risk taking and explore different facets of teaching.”
  • Start small. When it comes to new projects, Tracy believes in starting small. “That’s because if you fail, you’re failing at a smaller scale,” she says. For instance, when she kicked off the community gardening program, she did so with just one class for a handful of students.
  • Surround yourself with like-minded colleagues. Tracy prefers to partner with coworkers who share her vision, and she empowers them to take on initiatives.
  • Do your research. When Tracy and her colleagues wanted to create an urban farm, they received some initial pushback from some decision-makers. So the team reached out to local traditional agricultural programs and used those insights to help create a sustainable model to care for the animals — and get much-needed approval.
  • Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. “If you would have told me when I first started teaching that I’d be taking care of animals or running an urban farm, I’d have told you that you’re insane,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s definitely one of the reasons why I’m still teaching. I’m still finding ways to not only challenge my students each and every day, but to also challenge myself.”
Photo of Melissa Tracy accepting the 2023 McGraw Hill Pathfinder Award.
Melissa Tracy accepting the 2023 McGraw Hill Pathfinder Award.

To learn more about the McGraw Hill Pathfinder Awards program visit: https://www.mheducation.com/pathfinder-awards.html.