“We are asking for this grant to develop an outdoor, wheelchair-accessible, raised garden to expand the children’s knowledge of plants and earth materials.”

That’s how North Forest Pines Elementary School special education teacher Rita Vermeulen started her request for a $1790 WakeEd Partnership Teacher Innovation Grant. She teaches special needs children who have severe intellectual disabilities. Most are in wheel chairs; some are nonverbal.

“The goal is to give them the skills they need to succeed,” Vermeulen said, “to build the skills of touching, seeing, etc. so that they can access the curriculum.”

It’s a challenge, but each child follows a specific learning plan. And certain subjects can really help the students understand the world around them better.

“Life science allows them to be really hands on,” she said. “They can do things with plants and soil and seeds and such.”

The one challenge for Vermeulen’s students is actually touching the soil, which many of the wheelchair bound students unable to complete this task. That’s when Rita found her “What if…” Around WakeEd we know that all of our Teacher Innovation Grants are based on someone asking, “What if…” For Rita, it was “What if my students were able to touch the soil, plant the seeds and really experience the garden?”

A WakeEd Teacher Innovation Grant funded the purchase of two raised garden beds. North Forest Pines Elementary PTA donated seeds and planting supplies and by fall, Rita was sowing seeds. She knew the grant would impact the children in the classroom, but she had no idea how it would spread through the school.

“Planting is part of the 3rd-grade curriculum so my kids can have time with kids who don’t have disabilities,” she said.

In addition, some of the science teachers collaborated with Rita to enhance instruction. The garden beds were interwoven into all aspects of the curriculum. The occupational therapist worked with students on their fine motor skills by having them grab plants and plant seeds.

What Rita thought would be season-specific has lasted the entire year. It started in the fall with pumpkin seeds and has continued to the end of the year, where students will help make coleslaw for a celebration. She documented the entire experience here. It’s the first time many of the students will be able to participate in class this way.

“We have a wonderful class of students,” Rita said. “Some people don’t realize that all students in Wake County are learning.”

And while the $1790 Teacher Innovation Grant increased her effectiveness, Rita made the difference for these students.

If you would like to invest in education with a donation to our teacher innovation grants, please contact Fran Carruthers at fcarruthers@wakeed.org.