OCDE’s Connections program earns Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning Award

11022023_Marianne Taylor Connections garden
Career technical education teacher Marianne Taylor discusses garden tasks with a student at the Harbor Learning Center South campus in Fountain Valley while being filmed by KCAL News for a segment in November 2023.

The Orange County Department of Education’s Special Education Services division, home to the Connections program, has been honored with the 2023-24 Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning Award for its commitment to equipping students with essential skills for employment and societal contribution.

The State of California’s Advisory Commission on Special Education presented the award to Analee Kredel, associate superintendent of Educational Programs, and her team during a virtual meeting on June 12

Following the recognition, Kredel’s team briefed the commission on the program, which provides specialized educational services for students with extensive support needs across 13 school sites in Orange County, catering to students referred from 28 local districts in Orange County and neighboring areas.

Advisory Commission on Special Education listens to Connections team
Advisory Commission on Special Education

A cornerstone of the program is its emphasis on community-based instruction and vocational training, notably through a career technical education (CTE) pathway focusing on agriculture and natural resources. This pathway aims to cultivate technical skills and workplace readiness among students, preparing them for future academic and professional pursuits. 

“There are not many awards that specifically recognize outstanding Special Education programs so that makes this award and recognition even more significant,” Kredel said. “We started our work in 2018 with a goal of creating CTE opportunities for students with the most significant support needs in the area of agriculture and natural resources and we are seeing our successes.”

Sustainable garden provides hands-on learning

At the Harbor Learning South campus in Fountain Valley, a sustainable garden serves as both an outdoor classroom and training ground for students. Educators employ a hands-on approach to teaching students gardening techniques, plant nurturing and care for a flock of chickens. The garden is equipped with adaptive tools and wheelchair-accessible beds to ensure inclusivity.

OCDE Special Schools student Stacy with 4H club chicken Goldie
Stacy, a student in OCDE’s Adult Transition Program, cares for a chicken named “Goldie” at Harbor Learning Center South.

OCDE’s mission is to equip students with 21st-century competencies essential for success. This CTE pathway supports that mission by conveying practical skills in gardening, tool use and customer service, vital for future employment prospects.  

Several times a year, Connections students visit OCDE’s office in Costa Mesa to sell items they’ve grown or crafted in the garden. This initiative fosters leadership and customer service skills among students. 

Connections also offers students the opportunity to participate in 4-H club meetings, where they develop leadership skills and learn agricultural practices such as sustainable gardening and raising chickens.

In 2020, the Harbor Learning Center established its inaugural 4-H chapter, tailored for students with special needs under OCDE’s supervision. Three years later, in 2023, OCDE’s Special Education division achieved significant recognition at the OC Fair’s Imaginology competition. Students from the center entered three chickens from their campus coop, earning accolades that included a first-place award for best breed and champion large fowl, highlighting their dedication and nurturing efforts.

For further information on the Connections program and its services, visit ocde.us/SPED.