MELBOURNE, Fla. – Rays from the hot, mid-autumn Florida sun poked holes through the canopy of trees shading the Verdi EcoSchool, dappling the dirt paths snaking through the property.
Children, some wearing Halloween costumes, raced among the plants, picnic tables and lean-tos before settling in for their next learning sessions.
Ayana and John Verdi — who established the school in Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District in 2016, according to News 6 partner Florida Today — led the way to a shaded gazebo behind one of the school’s two main buildings.
The whole place is filled with life, from the indoor math class to the yard-long beans, radishes, cauliflower, bok choy, papaya and cranberry hibiscus growing in raised beds and furrowed rows across the campus.
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Verdi EcoSchool, a not-for-profit, urban farm school, focuses on place-based learning.
Yes, students, ranging from elementary age to teenagers, receive instruction in reading, math and history, Ayana said, but 60% of the school day takes place 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 open-air classroom.
The Verdi EcoSchool started as a collaboration with the Eau Gallie Community Garden behind the Yoga Garden on Pineapple Avenue. The original goal was to offer programs for home-schooled and gifted children.
“People said this should be a full-time school,” Ayana said. The couple decided to give it a try, a little naively, they now admit.
“We’re following the model of our school,” she said. “We’re learning by doing.”
Enrollment grew from a dozen students the first year to 35 the next. Now 57 attend the school, which still offers options for home-schooled children and preschoolers.
The school occupies adjacent properties at 1851 and 1861 Highland Ave., Melbourne, which are 70-year-old bungalows that most recently housed medical offices. Garages and other outbuildings have been converted to an art studio, a greenhouse and other learning areas.
As the clock slipped past noon, four teenage boys 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 chef Cayli Arico.
She heated oil in a large pot on a hot plate and reminded the boys that popcorn doesn’t always come from a bag in the microwave. She dropped a couple of kernels of organic yellow corn into the oil to test its heat.
Eventually, they’ll be able to use corn grown onsite, she said.
While they waited for the tell-tale mini-explosions from the pot, Arico gave a history lesson.
“How long ago was corn domesticated?”
The boys called out answers: 1,000 years, 2,000 years.
“Corn was grown 10,000 years ago in Mexico,” Arico said. “People have known about popcorn for thousands of years.”
As the smell of popcorn wafted over the campus, garden educator Molly Sharpe talked about her classes.
“We have lots of different garden experiences,” she said. “We care for the garden during the week, and talk about local and global agriculture. We have a harvest meal every year.”
The children get to take home and eat what they’ve grown. What they don’t take is made available for the community to take. Some people leave plant seedlings or their own produce in return.
They’re growing beets and kale 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 an area that turned out to be too shady.
“But that’s good for the kids,” Sharpe said. “They learn why things don’t work.”
Sharpe said she wants to impart a holistic understanding of agriculture. Students learn how agriculture impacts the environment, and how the supply chain works. One lesson tracked the steps it takes for corn to become Doritos, from planting, growing and harvesting to processing, packaging and transporting.
She flips through a stack of labels the children made for some of the plants they grow. Each is a work of art, as well as a science lesson.
One has the title “Sapodilla” with “manilkara zapota” below it. A crayon was used to create a leaf rubbing, and the description reads: “I belong to the plant family Sapotaceae. I need full sun and fertilizer to thrive.”
“We’re learning science and English,” Sharpe said. “We look at scientific naming. They looked up facts about plants and which are related. The class is good at connecting the dots.”
The labels will be used for produce sold at the school’s garden markets, held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first Sunday of each month. In addition to student-grown produce, local vendors are invited to set up booths and tables, too.
“At the EcoSchool, we don’t just want to serve our students, but the community at large,” Ayana Verdi said.
That’s one of the reasons chef Arico will begin Savory Sweet Seed to Table Saturdays the second Saturday of each month.
The first cooking demonstration and dinner will be Nov. 12. Tickets are $50.
Arico will use fruits, vegetables, herbs and even flowers grown in the school’s gardens to prepare a savory and a sweet dish. Guests can participate in the cooking lesson, then get to enjoy the food they’ve prepared.
The recipes she develops are vegan and wheat-free, she said, but everyone goes home with the recipes and ideas of how to adjust them to fit differing tastes. For example, shredded chicken can be added to vegetable soup.
Planning the community dinners came with one catch, Anaya Verdi said.
“We did have to get permission from the kids to do this,” she said.
Learn more about Verdi EcoSchool
The Verdi EcoSchool is at 1851 Highland Ave., in Melbourne’s Eau Gallie Arts District. More information about events and community programs is available at verdiecoschool.org.