National nonprofit ‘pressure-tests’ innovative education choice programs in Florida and beyond

Lisa Buie

Verdi EcoSchool and EcoHigh’s place-based education philosophy envisions the immediate environment as the student’s most important classroom.

Like most great ideas, this one started on the ground, with a handful of eighth graders.

After spending middle school in a unique environment that has earned the reputation of being the Southeast’s first urban farm school, the teens were unwilling to trade the lush gardens of the Melbourne Eau Gallie Arts District for the vanilla hallways of a traditional high school.

They asked: Would Ayana and John Verdi, founders of Verdi EcoSchool, consider adding a high school to their K-8 treasure?

Ayana initially dismissed the idea, calling it “a whole new stratosphere of education” she was not prepared to explore.

But the students persisted. They won support from their parents and organized a presentation. Their enthusiasm, combined with the Verdis’ entrepreneurial spirit, ultimately influenced the couple’s decision to give it a try. School staff and students then organized a meeting to sell the project to the community.

“We talked about why continuing into high school with a passion-based learning approach that’s student-driven in a community that we use as our campus was vital for current and future families,” Ayana recalled.

Using the local community as a classroom creates an immersive curriculum that underscores Verdi EcoHigh’s place-based education philosophy.

Their pitch won over local leaders. In 2020, Verdi EcoHigh opened its doors to students in grades 9 through 12. But the key piece to making EcoHigh a reality came from the Drexel Fund, a national nonprofit foundation that provides financial support and mentoring to educational entrepreneurs seeking to launch and scale pioneering private schools focused on underserved communities.

The organization awarded Verdi EcoSchool a fellowship package worth $100,000.

“Ayana had an exciting K-8, but she wanted to open a high school for it,” said John Eriksen, Drexel co-founder and managing partner. “We look for interesting and diverse models of schools, and we couldn’t find anything like that anywhere in the country.”

Drexel’s mission to kickstart private schools accessible to all socio-economic groups makes focusing on states with robust education school choice policies like Florida’s a natural fit, Eriksen said.  About 60% of Drexel applications come from the Sunshine State.

Other schools the fund has assisted in Florida include Cristo Rey in Tampa and the three Academy Prep Centers for Education in the Tampa Bay area and Lakeland. A more recent project is SailFuture Academy, a St. Petersburg foster care agency that is opening a vocational high school this fall for lower-income and at-risk teens who have become disengaged in traditional high school settings.

“The Drexel Fund provided me with an incredible network of school leaders who could help to offer guidance and tangible resources as I worked to implement the EcoHigh vision,” Ayana said.

The fund picked up Ayana’s travel costs to visit trailblazing public, private and charter schools across the nation so she could learn best practices when launching EcoHigh. She also received a consultation with Darren Jackson, Drexel Fund board member and former CFO of Best Buy and Nordstrom.

Most import, Ayana said, the Drexel Fund offered the power of reinforcement through their recognition of her hard work to become a school of innovation.

About one-third of the students who attend the Verdis’ school use state choice scholarships.

“At the end of my fellowship year, I was given the opportunity to present my plan for a new place and project-based high school and received a grant to support the creation of EcoHigh and the potential for continued partnership with the Drexel Fund through replication support,” she said.

EcoHigh offers three tracks: sustainability studies, agricultural science, and agri-business. The program is place- and program-based, meaning that learning happens in many places and many ways. At this unique high school, one of the places learning takes place is the Brevard Zoo.

A partnership with the zoo allows high schoolers to spend three days a week there, where they learn, design and work on the campus. The other two days are spent at the main campus in the Eau Gallie Arts District, where the students learn in nature and work on community improvement projects.

Tuition at the 77-student school is $9,350 annually. The school accepts the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship, for which about one-third of the students qualify.

Ayana said she hopes to continue to grow the school, which offers full-time and part-time education as well as enrichment opportunities for homeschool students. The Drexel Fund has pledged to be there for her when the time comes to expand, as it stands with all innovative school leaders who have a desire to help underserved students.

“They bring us the innovation and diversity,” he said. “We help them pressure-test their ideas.”

Eriksen said some ideas, which involve micro-schools or pods, “we can’t touch right now in Florida” because the state relies heavily on a traditional school education model. If the Florida Legislature chooses to expand education savings accounts or make other tweaks to existing law, those changes could make Florida, already hospitable to choice, an even more fertile ground for innovation.

“If Florida went for a more personalized model,” Erickson said, “the amount of investment would be incredible.”

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