MELBOURNE, FL – Rays from the hot mid-autumn Florida sun punched holes through the treetops shading the Verdi EcoSchool, staining the dirt paths winding through the property.
Children, some dressed in Halloween costumes, ran among the plants, picnic tables and mats before settling in for their next study sessions.
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Ayana and John Verdi, who founded the school in Melbourne’s Eau Gallie arts district in 2016, according to News 6 partner Florida Today, made their way to a shady gazebo behind one of the school’s two main buildings.
The whole place is teeming with life, from indoor math classes to the yard-long beans, radishes, cauliflower, bok choy, papaya and cranberry hibiscus growing in raised beds and furrowed rows across campus.
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Verdi EcoSchool, a non-profit urban farming school, focuses on on-the-ground learning.
Yes, the students, ranging from elementary age to teenagers, receive instruction in reading, math and history, Ayana said, but 60 percent of the school day is spent outside.
Learning comes by doing: planting, cultivating, harvesting. Students study water samples from the Indian River Lagoon. Science lessons are detailed on a whiteboard in an outdoor classroom.
The Verdi EcoSchool began as a collaboration with the Eau Gallie Community Garden behind the Yoga Garden on Pineapple Avenue. The original goal was to offer programs for homeschooled and gifted children.
“People said it should be a full-day school,” Ayana said. The couple decided to try, somewhat naively, they admit now.
“We’re following our school’s model,” she said. “We learn by doing.”
Enrollment grew from a dozen students the first year to 35 the next. 57 now attend the school, which still offers opportunities for homeschoolers and preschoolers.
The school occupies adjacent properties at 1851 and 1861 Highland Ave., Melbourne, which are 70-year-old bungalows that recently housed medical offices. The garages and other outbuildings have been converted into an art studio, greenhouse and other training spaces.
As the clock ticked past noon, four teenagers sat at a table on the back porch, chopping parsley, oregano and other spices.
“We’re going to pop some popcorn and put herbs in it,” said school cook Kylie Arico.
She heated oil in a large pot on the stove and reminded the boys that popcorn doesn’t always come from a bag in the microwave. She dropped a few kernels of organic yellow corn into the oil to test its heat.
Eventually, they will be able to use corn grown locally, she said.
While they waited for the telltale mini-explosions from the pot, Arico gave a history lesson.
“How long ago was corn domesticated?”
The boys shouted answers: 1000 years, 2000 years.
“Maize was cultivated 10,000 years ago in Mexico,” Arico said. “People have known popcorn for thousands of years.”
As the smell of popcorn wafted over campus, garden educator Molly Sharp talked about her classes.
“We have a lot of different experiences in the garden,” she said. “We garden during the week and talk about local and global agriculture. Every year we have food for the harvest.
Children can take home and eat what they have grown. What they don’t take is available for the community to take. Some people leave plant seedlings or their own produce in return.
They grow beets and cabbage at Chef Arico’s request. The squash and cucumbers didn’t make it. A second try with lettuce is doing better than the first, which was planted in a spot that turned out to be too shady.
“But it’s good for the kids,” Sharpe said. “They learn why things don’t work.”
Sharp said he wanted to convey a holistic understanding of agriculture. Students learn how agriculture affects the environment and how the supply chain works. One tutorial traces the steps it takes to make corn Doritos, from planting, growing and harvesting to processing, packaging and shipping.
She flips through a stack of labels the kids made for some of the plants they grow. Each is a work of art as well as a lesson in science.
One has the title ‘Sapodilla’ with ‘manilkara zapota’ below it. Crayon was used to create the friction of the leaf and the description reads: “I belong to the plant family Sapotaceae. I need full sun and fertilizer to thrive.”
“We learn science and English,” Sharpe said. “We’re looking at scientific naming. They looked up facts about plants and which ones are related. The class is good at connecting the dots.”
The labels will be used for produce sold at the school’s garden markets, which are held from 9am to 2pm on the first Sunday of each month. In addition to student-grown produce, local vendors are also invited to set up stalls and tables.
“We at EcoSchool want to not only serve our students, but the community as a whole,” said Ayana Verdi.
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That’s one of the reasons Chef Arico started offering Spicy Sweet Seeds on the table on the second Saturday of every month.
The first cooking demonstration and dinner will be on November 12. Tickets are $50.
Arico will use fruits, vegetables, herbs and even flowers grown in the school’s gardens to prepare a savory and sweet dish. Guests can take part in the cooking class, then enjoy the food they have prepared.
The recipes she develops are vegan and wheat-free, she said, but everyone goes home with the recipes and ideas on how to tweak them to suit different tastes. For example, shredded chicken can be added to vegetable soup.
Planning the community dinners came with a catch, Anaya Verdi said.
“We had to get permission from the kids to do this,” she said.
Learn more about Verdi EcoSchool
Verdi EcoSchool is located at 1851 Highland Ave., in Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District. More information on community events and programs can be found at verdiecoschool.org.