|27 Sep 2023
|United States of America
|2023 Finalists Global Teacher Prize
Melissa’s desire to become a teacher was first sparked during the summer before her senior year of high school, when she was awarded a scholarship to join a community service program teaching English in a rural village in Thailand. The enthusiasm and electrifying smiles of the students gave her a previously unknown sense of fulfillment and purpose. Together with a further scholarship to volunteer on a Pre-Incan archaeological site in Peru, it ignited in Melissa a strong urge to teach. Later, during her senior year at Tulane University in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit, flooding Melissa’s home and community. After spending her fall semester at the University of Delaware, she returned to New Orleans and taught in high-needs schools where many of the students had lost everything. While she knew she couldn’t change her students’ home lives, she could provide some stability in their school lives and equip them with the academic tools to be successful later in life.
Melissa now teaches at Odyssey Charter School, an innovative and diverse dual-language Greek School founded in 2006 which is currently the second-largest public charter school in Delaware. Many of its students live in underserved communities throughout New Castle County, and at least 40 per cent qualify for free or reduced lunches. With a highly entrepreneurial spirit, Melissa believes in “thinking big” to promote equity and amplify student voices whenever possible. A leader in unique and innovative programming, she is the only teacher in Delaware to offer an interdisciplinary Food Studies Career Pathway. Beginning in 2019, Melissa transformed her classroom into a hydroponic lab, in which her students utilise advanced farming technology to produce chemical-free fruit, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers without a traditional soil growing media. Students also consider why food matters and how they can act to support a healthier food system. In 2020, in response to the gender imbalance in agriculture, Melissa began offering an extracurricular program titled “Girls Grow Greens”, engaging 30 female students in 7th-12th grades who participate in a weekly two-hour session of hands-on learning and a rigorous plant science curriculum. Students have harvested and donated at least 6,000 pounds of hydroponically grown produce to community fridges and food banks in New Castle County.
Outside the classroom, Melissa has continued her own education by participating in more than 30 academic seminars, in addition to pursuing a second master’s degree in U.S. history on a full scholarship. She was the 2019 Gilder-Lehrman History Teacher of the Year, the 2020 Delaware Charter School Teacher of the Year, a 2020 Sanford Award Winner, and 2021 Delaware STEM Educator of the Year. Most recently, she was the sole recipient of the Pathfinder Award for innovation in teaching. If Melissa wins the Global Teacher Prize, she plans to use some of the funding to purchase a Freight Farm (a hydroponic farming system retrofitted inside a freight container) to grow 13,000 leafy greens every month. In addition, she would equip every single school in Delaware with self-contained vertical hydroponic systems to grow hyper-local produce. She also aspires to scale this work nationally in the next ten years: by empowering students to be food justice advocates, reliable access to healthy produce can be provided to millions of people.