‘Slice of heaven’: Students blossom at special education school’s farm

Berry Good Farms one of many programs to help students with intellectual differences grow

A local school for special education is helping kids grow with opportunities they wouldn't get anywhere else.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A slice of heaven?

A local school for special education, complete with an on-campus farm, is helping kids grow with opportunities they wouldn’t get anywhere else.

The North Florida School of Special Education is a nonprofit which teaches nearly 200 children with intellectual and developmental differences. It’s located near Atlantic and Southside boulevards, a stone’s throw from the Regency Square Mall.

Many of its graduates now work there, assisting with the programs and encouraging students to achieve.

The school is gaining notoriety for its farm, where students organically grow fruits, vegetables and even fish.

From farm to table, the students at Berry Good Farms deliver their harvest straight to the kitchen at the schoolhouse across campus. (WJXT)

“It’s always good to grow all these vegetables and fruits,” said Ryan Smith, a student-turned employee. “You’ve got plenty of other goodies. There are olives on the trees. And those are papayas all the way over there. And those are sweet potatoes.”

Smith blossomed at the farm, gaining a green thumb and a lot of confidence.

“I feel like this is my place where I can just help to grow these plants,” he said.

Students at Berry Good Farms learn how to grow produce the natural way; sustainability is key.

The fun comes naturally as well.

Farm manager Jordan Williams showed how they use fish to fertilize in the greenhouse.

“We’ve got two tanks of tilapia,” Williams said. “They basically use the restroom in the water, we filter out the water of all solids and then we use the water to supply nutrients for our plants. And so I’ll give them a quick feeding here. You can see they’re very hungry today.”

Farm manager Jordan Williams showed how Berry Good Farms uses fish to fertilize in the greenhouse. (WJXT)

What does this teach the students, you may ask?

“They’re involved in the whole process,” he said. “They’re learning about sustainability, responsibility. Just learning how to use the foods that they’re growing.”

And from farm to table, the students deliver their harvest straight to the kitchen at the schoolhouse across campus.

It’s here that the culinary team makes the freshest school lunches.

Chef Carrie Eagle teaches gourmet cooking, sharing her secret recipes for better food.

It’s a transformation for students and post-grads, who come back to assist.

“Ever since I started culinary, I’ve lost 44 pounds ever since I started doing this,” said LeighAnn Gray, who helps in the kitchen.

Others learn how to run a café, where teachers, parents and guests can order farm-fresh food and drinks.

Students serve up life skills with a smile.

The produce also goes to a food truck that raises money for the organization’s programs. It’s also sold at local markets.

Plus, students also use the ingredients for our four-legged friends. Barkin’ Biscuits is a big hit. Students do all the work in the bakery on-campus.

“Well I think honestly if I had not come to the school, I wouldn’t be talking to you like this,” said Anna DeStefano. “When I was younger I was a lot less advanced. I could barely verbalize honestly. It was very hard for me to communicate, look at somebody and talk to them clearly like I am now.”

It doesn’t stop there: There’s horse therapy, music class, art and sports.

All centered around the word ability, not disability.

“Our secret sauce? Do you wanna know our secret sauce?” joked Debra Rains, the assistant head of school. “I think our secret sauce is that we really see the abilities in our students. And so the fact that we don’t look at what they can’t do, but we’re constantly looking at what they can do and offering them opportunities to have the same experiences that their neurotypical peers are having.”

It’s a field of dreams that some families move from across the country for.

“A big slice of heaven,” Rains said. “Eight acres of heaven right here.”

The school accepts donations and volunteers.

To learn more, visit https://www.northfloridaschool.org/.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.