Young adults with special needs build promising futures at Rising Stars Academy

Young adults with special needs build promising futures at Rising Stars Academy

In most states, special needs young adults are aged out at 21, with little to no opportunity to continue their education through state funded resources. Michigan, however, stands alone as the only state in the country that has a law mandating (or requiring) special education for students with disabilities to 26 years of age.

More than a decade ago, Debbie and Mark Prentiss saw this as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young adults with special needs.

Work based skill-building day program is born

Through an initial charter school grant, Debbie and Mark founded Rising Stars Academy (RSA) to provide postsecondary education to adults aged 18-26 with an intellectual disability. They are located in Center Line, Michigan, a northeast suburb of Detroit.

RSA’s day program and workshops provide structure to suit each person’s needs while promoting self-advocacy skills and personal independence. Program components include learning about employment processes, career exploration, hands-on experience, and personal/professional skill building.

What originally started with a focus on culinary training, their curriculum quickly expanded to a variety of occupational based programs and beyond. This academic year they are offering Advanced Cooking, Green Screen, Yoga/Meditation, Sign Language, Painting, Theater, Jewelry Making, Dance, Baked Goods, Library Club, Epoxy Arts, Production, and Mosaics & Paper Arts.

Ambition, pride and sense of purpose on display at every turn

As Debbie gave me the grand tour, students were deeply engaged in their tasks and training. We started at Gather + Grounds, their coffee shop located about a mile from the main campus. Here the students and staff work to serve coffee varieties, teas, breakfast, soup, and lunch sandwiches. All of which they have learned to prepare. It is a warm and inviting place to enjoy your morning coffee.

Gather + Grounds Coffee Shop

We made our way back to main campus, where I had the opportunity to see the programs and students in action. In the arts & crafts room, everyone was busy putting together picture boards. I liked the fact that the exercise objective seemed geared toward learning life skills, while reinforcing the value of family and friends.

Arts & Crafts for life

In fact, every corner I turned, there was evidence how Rising Stars Academy takes great strides to ensure every activity is designed with their students long term, well being in mind. Students are presented an opportunity to learn, grow and prepare themselves to go on to live their best lives possible with more confidence and purpose, while gaining meaningful job experience and daily life experience to help them become more independent.

Classroom activities can create visual reminders of the importance of daily routines and duties, even basic tasks like hygiene.  As the father of a special needs son, I can appreciate the value of your child learning these basic tasks, which many of us simply take for granted or do without much thought. Reinforcement and repetition is key. I think Ariel has all the important bases covered with this poster I saw in the hallway!

Hygiene demo by Ariel

Money management is another task that can be extremely challenging for many. At Rising Stars Academy, they weave activities and visual aids into teaching these important life skills. Practical exercises like organizing and running a garage sale can be valuable experiences to not only learn new skills, but to be part of a team and have fun along the way.

Managing the garage sale

Magic in the kitchen

I was both inspired and blown away by what I witnessed in the school kitchens. The student’s skills were on full display as they worked together to prepare a wide variety of baked goods from scratch, along with other food products. All under the tutelage and watchful eyes of supervisors and staff.

Looks yummy


There were even french fries being prepared and packaged from scratch, as I got to witness an actual french fry machine in use by one of the student chefs.

French fry maker extraordinaire

These look better than McDonalds










Most of these scrumptious products were being packaged for sale and distribution at a number of local businesses. Some were targeted for their retail storefront.

Many tasty choices to accompany my coffee

Students also learn the benefits of organic gardening as they learn how to grow and harvest some fresh ingredients onsite in the back yard garden.

Learning farm to table

All this while being performed in an extremely clean and sanitary environment. It was obvious these students were well instructed in proper handling of food.

I really appreciated watching everyone in action, as they clearly displayed a sense of pride in their work.

Special relationship evolves with the community and local businesses

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rising Star Academy is the relationships that have evolved with businesses throughout the metro Detroit area. As mentioned earlier, most of RSA’s food products are sold and distributed to local businesses for internal use or resale. The list of customers is notable, including Comerica Park, home of major league baseball’s Detroit Tigers, and Little Caesars arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons, our local  professional hockey and basketball teams respectively.

These venues enjoy the results of the RSA’s students labor of love in the kitchen, which produced many of the hot dog and hamburger buns used by stadium vendors. Other local businesses such as some of the Beyond Juice franchisees serve delicious baked goods produced the students. More on the Beyond Juice partnership can be found here.

And still other local businesses have reached out to partner with Rising Star Academy to have their students onsite to help cook and serve their customers. One such recent partner is Detroit Wing Company (DWC). You can learn more here about this amazing relationship and opportunity.

Some of the students have even worked off-campus at places such as Henry Ford Hospital, where they worked in the cafeteria creating, sorting, and/or packaging food items to be sold to Henry Ford’s employees and hospital visitors who frequent the cafeteria.

Traveling Star Chefs

And when the student culinary team wants to take their show on the road, they have their very own food truck!

Lasting impressions

I’ve seen some interesting vocational rehab and other programs geared toward special needs over the past 20+ years, but none as impressive as Rising Stars Academy.

As I observed and thought about all the logistics involved (particularly in the kitchen) to successfully integrate their training, production, and delivery to end customers throughout metro Detroit, my appreciation grew even deeper for what they’ve been able to achieve.  These students are gaining knowledge while building confidence through real life, hands-on experience.

Think BIG and reach for the stars

I also learned that RSA has a robotics team. Yes, you read that correctly! My written words won’t do it justice, so I encourage you to catch this short video to hear more about that program.

Amazing Robotics stars

As my visit came to an end, Debbie was welcoming a candidate who was there to interview for the teaching position to lead the Robotics team. I sense a determination to make this program a huge success. What an incredible way for them to gain unique technical skills, those of which are in high demand. I am very much looking forward to watch all that develops on this front.

In addition, Mark and Debbie recently purchased property in Richmond, a more rural community about 25 miles outside of Detroit to serve those individuals that find it difficult to access opportunities in the more densely populated urban community of Center Line. While this location may not have as extensive a menu of offerings as the current campus, I’m sure the students will embrace the opportunity, as rural communities are often extremely underserved.

I encourage you to follow them on facebook. Not only will their stories of achievement brighten your day, but what they’ve built could serve as a model for other special needs communities throughout our country.

Thank you Debbie, Mark, and your entire incredible staff for all you are doing to help these inspiring young adults live their best lives!