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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Keep A Maritime-Themed School Afloat

Murray Fisher, founder of the New York Harbor School, offers advice on keeping an extraordinary school going, despite philosophical and financial challenges.
By Evantheia Schibsted

This how-to article is accompanied by the feature "Safe Harbor: Education By Land, Mostly By Sea."

Editor's Note: In 2009, the New York Harbor School joined the Urban Assembly group of schools, and then moved to a newly renovated campus on Governor's Island in the middle of New York's harbor in 2010.

What is the central philosophy of the New York Harbor School?

A core belief that being on the water is a powerful learning environment. That could mean working together on a boat or simply feeling the tide move you. It might mean working with your hands on nets or observing and learning about wildlife and fish or simply smelling the saltwater. Being on the water is a powerful medium for learning important skills. Not just powerful, like "This is fun"; it's actually a good way to help kids learn skills -- like being able to work as a team, analyze, observe, ask questions -- that they'll need to succeed in college.

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese

To what do you attribute your school's success?

Believing that each kid has the innate ability to succeed in college -- to not give up on any one student because of how they act or their previous schooling or what they look like. We're pretty clear about that when recruiting teachers.

How do teachers of English or history immerse students in the school's maritime theme?

It's happening organically. It requires that a teacher think creatively. For instance, it takes a history teacher who, when developing a class that covers the use of water throughout U.S. history, also hits on the skills and content students need to pass the New York State Regents test.

What do the teachers aim to instill in their students?

To get kids to question the assumption that they are x kind of kid from x kind of neighborhood, able to accomplish only limited goals. Teachers are pushing the students' boundaries and making them step outside their comfort zone so that they can learn more.

What accomplishments are you proudest of so far?

The quality of instruction. You can go into any classroom and see a first-class education being offered. I'm also proud of the movement of a lot of our kids from far below grade level in reading and math to passing Regents tests.

How has the Harbor School managed to bring students so far along academically, especially when you consider the steep learning curve?

By having a clear mission and recruiting excellent teachers who believe in that mission and are willing to put in extra time and effort. We've created a culture where kids want to come to school. Each student has a special talent, intelligence, and skills. Our job as educators is to discover that in each one and offer a learning environment heterogeneous enough to encourage that. We've got teachers who create a rigorous academic culture, focusing on college preparation, whether it's after school or with homework or just in class. At the very least, we've created a warm environment where teachers and students like to be.

The Harbor School's extracurricular activities are privately funded. How did you find this money?

By working with our partners who already have the structures in place for raising money. For example, the South Street Seaport Museum has a whole grant-writing and development team, and they do the bulk of the fundraising for the Lettie G Howard, a type of fishing schooner, which we use full time for getting our kids out on water. The Urban Assembly, run by Richard Kahan, is a big partner. We've also done fundraising with the Waterkeeper Alliance and with Rocking the Boat. And then, sometimes teachers write individual grants.

Your four-year, $125,000-a-year grant from New Visions for Public Schools expires at the end of 2007. How will you make up for that deficit in 2008?

We're working on that. Our annual fundraiser for the last two years has raised about $50,000. So we'll try to make up some of our loss through that event.

What keeps you motivated?

I've fallen deeply in love with these kids, which I didn't expect. I'm not convinced that these kids don't so much need love as need a high-quality education. When I was first considering this school, I met a principal who said that after spending fifteen years as a principal who loved his kids, in the end he came to the same conclusion. That's always sort of a tug and pull. I've got individual relationships with 310 people in my life whose progress I feel some degree of responsibility for. That's a huge motivator.

Evantheia Schibsted is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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