N.Y. Harbor School Seeks Sea Change In Education

The SS Lilac is docked at the River Project on the Hudson River.

hide captionThe historic steamship SS Lilac is docked at the River Project on the Hudson River. Students from New York's Harbor School made the trip to the river as part of their curriculum: The school teaches students everything from boat building and ocean ecology to oyster growing.

Jacki Lyden/NPR

Murray Fisher had a dream: Take the 600 miles of New York City's coastline and all the water surrounding it, and start a maritime high school that would teach inner-city kids about their watery world — everything from boat building and ocean ecology to oyster growing.

Next year, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School will open its doors on Governors Island, a tree-covered jewel sold to the Dutch for two axes and a necklace, 800 yards off the coast of Manhattan. But for now, the Harbor School is in Bushwick, in the heart of Brooklyn.

Urban Environment Meets Natural World

At the Harbor School, each student wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the school's name. Tanks burble with classroom-grown fish.

Brendan Malone teaches maritime technology — his classroom is big enough to build wooden boats in.

"If you could find a place farther from any major New York water body, this is it," Malone says.

The Department of Education put the Harbor School inside the old Bushwick High School building in 2003. Here, 400 mostly black and Latino kids, most of whom knew nothing about maritime New York, now ride the subways for hours to get to waterways only a couple of miles away.

The school has sent a handful of its students on to marine specialties in college. That's the path that inspires 14-year-old freshman Daniel Bowen.

"I wanna get all types of degrees in marine biology, technology, anything marine. I love it. I try to do as many things as I can do," he says. "I mostly like being in the water. That's my favorite place. I feel more at home there."

And, of course, to be on the water, you have to sometimes get in the water. Before coming here, fewer than one in five of these kids could swim.

'This Should Be A School'

In 2003, the federal government, which had used Governors Island for everything from a Civil War fort to a longtime Coast Guard base, sold the island back to New York state and the city for $1.

Practically every developer in New York wanted in on the 19th century buildings, but Murray Fisher wanted space for a school. Before coming to New York, Fisher, 33, had worked for the conservation groups The Hudson Riverkeepers and the Waterkeeper Alliance, exploring estuaries around the world.

"I was from Virginia, had nothing to do with the Hudson River," he says. "Every day, I would be out working with scientists on the water. ... I became obsessed with the Hudson River.

"In my high school, I was always having to separate the things I was interested in doing outside with my studies. ... [I'd] skip school to go fishing. I remember thinking, 'This should be a school,' " Fisher says.

Soon, students from all five boroughs will be going to Fisher's school on Governors Island, walking under the canopies of London plane trees, gazing back at magnificent views of New York. And instead of city streets, all around them will be the vast wilderness of water.

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