When students enroll at The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island in Manhattan, 50 percent don’t know how to swim, but by graduation day they’re experienced sailors. That’s just how it goes when you attend a maritime high school.
The New York Harbor School was founded in 2003 as part of an effort by the New York City Department of Education’s efforts to improve Brooklyn’s graduation rate. By 2010, the Harbor School had already increased the graduation rate for the school it replaced by 200 percent. That same year, the school moved from its location on the fourth floor of Bushwick Campus High School in Brooklyn and onto Governor’s Island, where it opened to students from all over New York City.
Today, in addition to the standard curriculum, the 435 students at Harbor School can study such technical subjects as aquaculture, scientific diving, marine biology research, vessel operations, marine systems technology and ocean engineering, all with an eye toward a marine science or technology industry certification.
Not surprisingly, at the Harbor School the educational experience extends well beyond the classroom as well. While most high schools offer more traditional after-school activities such as basketball or theater, the Harbor School offers unique maritime extra-curriculars including vessel ops, boat building and sailing. None of the school’s programs require previous on-the-water experience, and the students come from a wide variety of on-water backgrounds. Some have never even touched the ocean.
In Vessel Ops, students meet for training in docking, boat handling and navigation skills. The group takes trips to areas around New York Harbor, like the Gowanus Canal, Erie Basin and Hudson River. Students who are part of this program have the opportunity to earn sea time hours toward a Coast Guard license.
Similarly, in the school’s boat-building club, students work hands-on to learn wooden boat-building techniques. In the 2013-2014 school year, the result of their efforts was a brand-new 21-foot New York Bay Sloop.
In May 2014, the school re-launched the South Street Seaport Museum’s 100-year-old 125-foot wooden schooner, the Lettie G. Howard, as a way to get all students out on the water. In the summer, the Harbor School uses the ship for a program called “In Dock,” in which 85 of the school’s 110 incoming ninth graders spend three days and two nights on board. The Howard sails around Raritan Bay, Lower and Upper New York Bay, the Hudson River, and Long Island Sound, with soon-to-be high school freshman as its crew.
“The boat needs all hands on deck just to be able to raise the sails, so the students participate in sailing every aspect of it. It is a great for teambuilding and to get the kids exposed to living and working in the marine environment, ” says Harbor School founder and Murray Fisher.
“I’ve seen incredible changes in students when they experience life aboard a ship—whether on a small sailboat learning basic sailing skills or on a bigger ship like the Lettie G. Howard,” says Fisher, who is also president of the New York Harbor Foundation. “It’s all about personal responsibility, teamwork and communication. It also gives the kids a chance to step away from regular life in the city and build their own community here.”
In September 2013, the Harbor School launched what they hope will be one of their biggest draws: an after school sailing program, complete with 420s, J/24s and two Hunter 38s, which the students will use for racing and sailing, both in- and off-shore.
“It’s a brand new program,” says Fisher. “We have a coach and a bunch of students who are really excited about sailing, but this is really just the beginning.”
The school hopes to raise some of the funding it needs for its on-the-water programs at the fourth annual New York Harbor Regatta at Governors Island on September 19th. The event will include a multi-class regatta with J/24s, Colgate 26s, J/105s, Farrs and Kers, which spectators can watch from the Hornblower Hybrid—a 168-foot eco-friendly luxury yacht. An 800-person Regatta Bash on the beach of Governor’s Island will round out the day.