NYC school makes harbor its classroom
It was an optimistic gesture by a leading state in the fledgling country. In 1790, Governors Island, a half-mile off the tip of Manhattan, was set aside for the benefit of education.
But there was a catch: If the need should arise, the military got first dibs. And given the island’s prime location in a key port, it was no surprise when, a mere four years later, the military staked that claim.
Cannon on Governors Island protected New York City during the War of 1812. Later, Union soldiers guarded Confederate POWs there. More recently, Coast Guard cutters patrolled from docks on the island’s shores.
Now, the spirit of that original grant will soon be honored, and the brick buildings of Governors Island will welcome their first nonmilitary tenant in more than two centuries.
It seems more than fitting that a public school devoted to the harbor itself will be the very first to arrive.
On a morning late last spring, Murray Fisher disembarked a small construction ferry from Manhattan and walked a few hundred yards to inspect the old Coast Guard building under renovation as a permanent home for his creation, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School. Another building nearby will house oyster farms, a scuba club, sailing and crew teams. The school is on track to move here by the fall of 2010.
It’s been a decade since Fisher first conceived of the Harbor School, and six years since it opened in what were supposed to be short-term quarters in landlocked central Brooklyn.
Since then, Fisher has poured the better part of his late 20s and early 30s into getting his dream started. Most of the rest he’s spent cajoling and battling with bureaucrats and developers to secure just a few feet of waterfront, a place where a school devoted to the water can realize its full potential.
“Take it! Take it!“ screams Daquasia Sanders, a none-too-shy ninth grader, as Fisher hands her a horseshoe crab.
“You’re embarrassing me,“ Fisher kids. “Just hold it in your hands. It’s OK, you can trust me.“ Soon, she joins several classmates nursing eggs from the crabs, which tides have washed up by the hundreds along Plumb Beach in Rockaway Inlet.
The setting could be a barren stretch of the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s New York City, jets from JFK audible when the wind dies down. Fisher follows the students along a grassy dune to the water’s edge, pointing out clams, oysters and scallops, before climbing back on the school bus to return to central Brooklyn.
New York Harbor is by some measures the biologically richest body of water in North America. Fisher can hardly believe how little notice most New Yorkers pay to it.
Wooden piers once extended from nearly every city cross street, but today water access is elusive. Most city kids — especially the poor, minority kids the school serves — might as well be living in Kansas.
“We want to create students who feel connected to their local place,“ Fisher says. “They cannot do that if they do not know those places well.“
In a way, the origins of the Harbor School date back before Fisher’s birth. His great uncle was LeMoyne Billings, a prep school friend of John F. Kennedy. The president’s nephew, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., spent summers during high school working on a ranch Fisher’s parents managed in Colombia.
Years later, Fisher read Kennedy’s book “The Riverkeepers,“ a call for citizens to take responsibility for the bodies of water around them. He wrote to Kennedy and eventually went to work for the groups Hudson Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.
It was long hours and low pay, investigating pollution complaints and speaking to school groups. But he learned everything there was to know about the Hudson River. And he met people — common fishermen, for instance — with little formal education but whose environmental stewardship had taught them to communicate, make arguments, and lead.
Fisher realized he himself was learning a range of skills he had never fully picked up, even in college at Vanderbilt.
Suddenly, it hit him.
“This should be a school,“ he thought.
Over the last decade, New York has been at the forefront of a bold education experiment: the small schools movement. More than two dozen giant, failing city high schools have been closed and replaced with smaller institutions.
Eighty-six organizations applied to start public schools in New York City in 2002. Fisher’s was one of 12 advancing to the next stage, receiving $10,000 each to help make their case.
He took his proposal to Richard Kahan, the leader of a network of small schools called Urban Assembly, who guided him through the city’s bureaucratic and political waters. Meanwhile, Fisher began scoping out sites and recruiting teachers and partners. He spent $1,000 on a single ad in The New York Times to recruit a principal, a quest that eventually led him to Nate Dudley, a former Yale football player then teaching in the South Bronx.
In September 2003, the Harbor School welcomed its first 125 freshmen. The location: supposedly temporary quarters on the fourth floor of one of the closing schools, Bushwick High.
The vibrant but low-income immigrant neighborhood of Bushwick was just the kind of community Fisher wanted to serve. But the whole point was to get students to the harbor. Bushwick, it happens, is the farthest spot from water in the five boroughs.
“Hey, we’re from the Harbor School,“ Fisher introduced himself, arriving to inspect the new digs for the first time.
A security guard glanced up at the fresh-faced, blond-haired 27-year-old, who looked as if he was a long way from home.
“Ain’t no harbor in Bushwick, sweetie,“ she shot back.
New York straphangers don’t easily surprise, but this weekday morning sight seems to flummox the subway commuters: 20 teenagers reading silently en route from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Harbor School ninth-graders complete an intensive, yearlong course introducing them to the geography, science and history of New York Harbor.
During the year, they’ll travel 300 miles by subway to 17 sites, from Jamaica Bay to the Hudson. Discipline is tight.
“We decided from the get-go we weren’t going to let our distance stop us,“ says Dudley, the principal. “They know more about the estuary than any other students in the city, and more than most adults.“
New York City’s school assignment lottery means some Harbor School students arrive with a real interest in water issues and have ranked the school highly on their list of choices. But many are just neighborhood kids from Bushwick.
Ninety-six percent are black or Hispanic; three-quarters come from families poor enough to qualify for a federal free lunch. Only 15 percent of incoming freshmen can swim (85 percent pass a swim test by graduation).
The destination on this morning was a replica Hudson River sloop, the Clearwater, now an education vessel operated by an organization tied to folk singer Pete Seeger that’s one of dozens of partners Fisher has lined up for the school.
Students rotate between four learning stations — history, navigation, fish and water quality. A dozen volunteer educators pepper them with questions. Who was Henry Hudson? Is the tide an ebb or a flow? How do we signal other boats we’re fishing? And everywhere they travel, students collect water samples for a database they keep in Bushwick.
Once on Governors Island, the students will still travel, but much less.
“The key is having a waterfront that we own and manage so we’re not asking anyone’s permission,“ Fisher says. “If it’s 7 a.m. and there’s a blitz of bluefish out there, a teacher can go with students right then.“
Maritime learning gets a lot more exciting when the water isn’t just imaginary.
“A lot of the power of building a boat is you get to use the boat,“ Fisher says. “Our kids have no place to use the boats they build.“
New York’s entire history, Fisher says, stems from its role as a harbor. Now, that history “is being reawakened, but the first ones to the plate at that reawakening are developers, and that’s who we’re fighting.“
His morning subway commute to Bushwick, over the Williamsburg Bridge, offers a tantalizing view of sites where for four years he pursued a permanent home for the school. He points to an old warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and spots along the Gowanus Canal, and Newtown Creek in Queens — each the scene of an epic bureaucratic ordeal.
In real estate, money talks.
“There’s 600 miles of waterfront in New York City, and every single person wants a piece,“ Fisher says.
“It’s not as cynical as developers don’t want 400 black kids in their neighborhood,“ he adds. But, “that’s part of it.“
All along, Fisher pursued Governors Island, which had been turned over to the city and state. It was ideal, but a longshot. In the final round of 25 proposals, he was up against heavy hitters like New York University and several of the city’s biggest real-estate developers.
“Everyone was putting up an amount of money they could pay to the state and city,“ Kahan recalled. “We went in and said, ‘we’re not paying you anything and we need $34 million.‘ We didn’t think we had a very competitive position.“
But Fisher hammered home the argument that the Harbor School’s mission made it the ideal tenant.
He “put together certainly the best program for integrating a theme into a school that anybody I know has done,“ Kahan said. “He had to make the very difficult sale. And he always made it. He was just incredibly compelling, specific. His excitement was contagious.“
In November 2006, the authority overseeing Governors Island named Fisher’s school the winner. The city and state pledged $34 million for construction.
Four years later than promised, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School’s name would at last shed its irony.
Officially, Fisher’s job title is “founder and program director” but he is involved in almost every aspect of the school. From a shared office in old Bushwick High, he fires off fundraising notes and drops in on faculty, budget and hiring meetings. Between classes, he steps into the hall to ride herd over the noisy stampede of students. At lunchtime, he buys pizza from a senior raising money to take a math CLEP test for college credit.
A shy senior, a nonnative English speaker, who is in danger of failing a state-mandated earth science exam studies in Fisher’s office. He helps her with questions on earthquakes and sedimentary layers and tells her to come back Friday to prove she gets it.
“Imagine doing this in Spanish,“ he tells a visitor. “It’s hard. I don’t think I could do this.“
At the old Bushwick High, just 22 percent of students graduated. The Harbor School’s first class of seniors, in 2007, graduated at a rate of 65 percent. That rose to 75 percent in 2008 and was 70 percent for the class of 2009.
Although relatively few students have parents who attended college, last year at least 90 percent of Harbor School graduates moved on. Most enroll in City University of New York community colleges, but many attend four-year schools, including marine programs at state universities and a handful have reached the Ivy League.
Fisher calls 20 percent of students here “true believers” — arriving with or acquiring genuine excitement about the water-focused mission. But he says the school won’t fully succeed unless it can offer something to the rest.
He thinks it can: a more engaging curriculum, a push out of their comfort zone, career paths they hadn’t recognized. But he’s torn between his faith that the “water stuff” can boost those students’ academic achievement, and his frank acknowledgment the school hasn’t yet figured out exactly how. Boat-building skills are nice, but the SAT is a key ticket to college, and its questions focus on reading and math. Some other schools with similar students have better graduation rates and state test scores.
“We know we’re not doing the best we can here,“ Fisher says.
Governors Island will be no panacea. But he can’t help but believe access to the water will help.
He’s still bothered by a student from the school’s first class.
The boy’s mom was dying of AIDS. He lived in a car, belonged to a gang, and had been smoking pot since he was 10. But his eyes lit up out on the water.
He devoured “anything we could feed him,“ Fisher recalled. “But we couldn’t organize enough of that stuff to keep him involved. It was us versus the street.“ Eventually, he dropped out; last Fisher heard, he had a kid and was living in Bushwick.
One afternoon last spring, the steady stream of visitors to Fisher’s office included Tanasia Swift. The 2008 graduate is one of a handful of minority students at marine-focused Stony Brook Southampton, and she returned to campus to talk to current students about college life.
“How’s your mom doing?“ Fisher asked.
“She always asks about you,“ she replied.
Fisher helped Swift line up jobs and internships, and persuaded her to join an educational program in the Bahamas her junior year. When she struggled there, “I just thought about how much Murray wanted me to do this.“
It was Fisher who pushed Darryl Gilbert into sailing, stopping him in the hall until he agreed to take an internship Fisher had lined up at South Street Seaport. Now, Gilbert wants to be a ship’s captain and is in a nautical training program at Kingsborough Community College.
Another student, Jennifer Soto, said it was Fisher who pushed her to apply for a semester-long program in Maine, where she’s now returning to an environmental-focused college.
The anecdotes of how his force of personality nudged students toward the water go on and on.
The students aren’t the only ones rewarded. Fisher calls his one-on-one time with students his “soul food,“ and they’re a big reason he’s drawn back to Bushwick most days.
Another is this: Without his eye to the sextant, Fisher worries the school could go the way of other “themed” high schools that have drifted from their original mission, their leaders distracted by the quotidian chores of running a school.
During a recent meeting, Dudley lobbied to spend money on clickers and smartboards for the classrooms. Fisher wanted to buy pumps for the oyster farms being set up at Governors Island.
Fisher admits to exhaustion and has tried to cut back on some of the weekend activities. Someday, he’d like to help others start similar schools, or perhaps reflect on his experiences in an academic setting. But he wouldn’t argue with Kahan’s assessment.
“Without him, I don’t believe it could maintain the focus yet,“ Kahan said. “Until it becomes a complete part of the school culture and everybody understands the connections between the water and the harbor and education, he needs to be around.“
Yet to alter lives on the scale he wants, Fisher must build something that doesn’t depend on him alone. Much of that work takes place off-campus — recruiting middle school students, nurturing partnerships and above all raising money.
The Harbor School receives about $9,600 per student annually in public funding, but the supplemental water programs cost another $1,000 per year, per student — money Fisher must raise in a recession-battered economy.
In addition, it will cost $1.6 million just to begin renovating a second Governors Island building with better water access, essential for the site to reach its full potential.
Several nights a week he’s out schmoozing politicians or donors. Meanwhile, planning the move to the island is a full-time job, too. How do you get 400 kids on a lower Manhattan ferry each morning?
With so many duties, Fisher regrets the days are gone when he could regularly tag along on field trips, and knew every Harbor School student by name. Still, as they left the Clearwater at Manhattan’s 79th Street Boat Basin and walked toward the subway, he quizzed himself, saying each student’s name aloud. Devin. Shanice. Shalie….
For Fisher, as for his students, time spent on the water makes all the difference. Trips like this, he says, replenish his energy, and remind him what his creation is supposed to look like.
“I have to create an institution where those experiences are replicated more often,“ he says. “And that’s what Governors Island is for.“
JUSTIN POPE, AP Education Writer
Entry filed under: Dive In, Manhattan, Maritime, Natural Waterfront, Public Waterfront. Tags: Governors Island, Harbor School, New York Harbor, small schools movement, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School.