Co-Founder of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governors Island
Murray Fisher has created the only school—a public school, at that—in New York City where teenagers can learn about everything maritime, from sea vessel operations to professional diving. He describes a day in the life of an average Harbor School student, how these 14- to 18-year-olds are embarking on a project to save New York Harbor and some highlights from their upcoming regatta.
In 2002, I read that you started thinking about establishing a maritime high school in New York City. Where did this initial impulse come from and what was the original mission of the school?
Murray Fisher: In 2002, a bunch of things converged. I moved from Riverkeeper to the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international umbrella group [for all waterkeeping alliances]. My role at the Waterkeeper Alliance was to help start new programs. I helped start over 60 programs over the three years I was there. It gave me a lot of self-confidence to start a school.
The other big thing was that I was living in New York City but I was frustrated that after four years, I had little connection to the water here. I grew up fishing, sailing and being on the water.
While I was thinking about ecosystem as curriculum, a friend of mine said I should meet his uncle, Richard Kahan. He had started two schools already. I went to him with a 10-page proposal for the school. He said, “Let’s do it.”
In the fall of 2010, you celebrated the first official day of school on Governors Island. Can you tell our readers why the school moved to the island and the highlights of your current campus?
In the first proposal, we listed 12 possible sites for the school. On that list I circled and highlighted Governors Island. For a school about New York Harbor, an island in the middle of the harbor that has 168 empty buildings was an obvious choice. I had always put that out there. It was the best possible place for our school. But we went through 18 potential sites. For five years, I worked on moving the school anywhere. It was almost a full-time job itself.
In November 2006, we were approved [to move to] Governors Island. We were the first new tenant on the island. Because of the critical intimate relationships our students need to have with the local marine ecosystem, [a location near the harbor] was essential to getting our kids excited.
What is a day in the life of your average Harbor School student like?
All of our students have to be on the 8:15 a.m. ferry. By then, the kids have to be in their uniform: a Harbor School polo shirt, T-shirt or sweatshirt. The ferry ride is about seven minutes long. Then they walk five minutes to school. Classes begin at 8:45 a.m. and each class is 47 minutes long. The classes are fairly standard, except every freshman has an “Introduction to New York Harbor” class. They are out on the water in every different kind of watercraft: little rowboats, sailboats—it depends on the focus of that unit. That class introduces them to the culture of Harbor School and to the harbor itself, combining geography, science, ecology, commerce and history. That class introduces them to the six career and technical education programs that are offered at the end of freshman year [marine biology research, aquaculture, vessel operations, ocean engineering, marine systems technology and professional/scientific diving]. They choose one to study for the next three years.
The school is hosting its first regatta Oct. 6. Could you tell us a bit more about this event?
The regatta is launching New York Classic Week, when all the classic sailboats are in the harbor for the week. We’ll have 20 J24 smaller sailboats [and four America's Cup Yachts will race in the Regatta as well] that are from the Manhattan Sailing Club, they are our main partner. MSNBC’s Willie Geist is doing race commentary. This is a fundraiser to support all the things that I just described that are expensive. We are hoping this can be an ongoing event to engage the sailing community.
Courtesy of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School
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