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Congratulations, Graduates

"Passage Notes" from our April 2007 issue

April 20, 2007
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AprPassNotes

New York Harbor School students learn to chart courses as part of their curriculum Charlie Morse

Success stories about inner-city high schools in the United States seem few and far between. But last fall, I had the opportunity to visit one that’s defying almost insurmountable obstacles to become not just successful but also inspirational.

The New York Harbor School opened in September 2003, and its first graduating class dons caps and gowns in June 2007. A rigorous college-preparatory program, it operates in partnership with one of its founders, the South Street Seaport Museum, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The maritime components of the curriculum are taught on board Lettie G. Howard, a 125-foot gaff-rigged Gloucester fishing schooner that the museum owns and keeps on docks nearby.

I went to the museum in October to find out more about the harbor school and to meet some of the students. Teenagers can be less than forthcoming, and their ennui often trumps their enthusiasm, but that’s not the case with these students. They were effusive, and I could barely take notes fast enough, not wanting to miss anything they had to say. Though six exuberant teenagers were all talking at once, Luis Melendez, a 17-year-old senior, summed up their feeling best.

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“All the time I’ve put into this program has been worth it,” he says.

That’s not a glib remark, for Luis, who was a poor student in middle school and received only two out of 14 possible credits in his first semester at the NYHS, is now an intern and junior watch officer on the Lettie G., an assignment that involves giving tours, operating the boat, and performing maintenance projects. He’s also a deckhand on the New York Water Taxi, which services commuters and tourists. He’s quick to point out that he’s learned most of his skills aboard the Lettie G.

What I found most remarkable about him and the rest of the kids was their demeanor. Perhaps they were advised in advance to be on their best behavior for visitors, but their appearance, manners, and gregariousness just seemed too genuine to be an act. And every student sported their harbor school T-shirt with pride. When they welcomed me aboard the 1893-built Lettie G.-a U.S. National Historic Landmark that the museum restored to her original appearance in 1993-I felt as though they were welcoming me into their home.

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Most of the students are from the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and formerly attended what was known as Bushwick High School, a low-performing school with a high dropout rate. The Bushwick campus has since been transformed into four smaller schools, each with a particular curriculum focus, and these are where NYHS students still spend half their time.

These kids have had to jump a few more hurdles than the average American teenager, and to say that NYHS has completely changed their lives is an understatement. Murray Fisher, the NYHS program director and a co-founder, shared these notable statistics: Eighty percent of seniors will graduate on time, compared with a 7-percent graduation rate at the former Bushwick High School; NYHS has a daily attendance rate of 90 percent, while Bushwick had a 60-percent attendance rate; and the dropout rate at NYHS is less than 3 percent, compared with the city average of about 17 percent and the old Bushwick average of 25 percent. Finally, 70 to 80 percent of students are passing the Regents Examinations, a New York state graduation requirement for high-school students, despite the fact that 25 percent speak English as a second language and 15 percent are special-education students.

One of the first lessons all NYHS students learn aboard Lettie G. Howard, and one they’ll gladly shout out if prompted, is the importance of safety and respect. Pretty basic concepts on any boat, but these values were absolutely lacking at the former Bushwick campus, which was one of the 10 most dangerous high schools in New York City. Jennifer Ostrow, assistant principal at NYHS and a seven-year Bushwick veteran, says that Bushwick had such a violent atmosphere that trust (a value just as important as safety and respect) was nonexistent.
Emanuel Valentin, a gregarious 15-year-old 10th-grader, was one of the students who gave me a tour of the Lettie G. His historical knowledge of the boat would rival that of any professional tour guide, and his practical knowledge of the boat underscores the fact that all NYHS students are expected to act as crew on board the schooner, not as passengers. NYHS students know that they’re expected to act professionally while on the Lettie G. Following instructions isn’t optional. The sail-training lessons taught on the boat reinforce their classroom lessons, prepare them for the future, and foster respect for themselves and others. During my tour of the boat, Emanuel was concerned for my safety, a once-alien notion to these kids and now an automatic response. In a very self-assured way, he made sure I followed protocol while getting on and off the boat or when going below.
Emanuel was the only student I met who knew how to swim before coming to NYHS. There’s a pool at the Bushwick campus, and swimming lessons take the place of regular physical-education classes. He’s a member of the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, which meets every Friday for weekly drills, and he’s thinking seriously of joining the U.S. Navy and pursuing a college degree.

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Leydi Basilio, a 17-year-old 11th-grader, is in her second year at NYHS. She emigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was 11, and she’d never set foot on a boat before enrolling at NYHS. “I learn something new every time I come on this boat,” Leydi says. “I like working as part of a team, and I enjoy all of my learning experiences. Even my vocabulary has increased.”

I asked her if she ever gets seasick. “I was only sick for the first day on the Summer of Sail,” she says. The Summer of Sail is one of the opportunities available to NYHS students. Thus far, a total of 48 students have spent two summers aboard the Lettie G., traveling the East Coast as far north as Cape Cod and Boston while making stops along the way in Greenport and Fishers Island, in New York; New London, Connecticut; and Newport and Block Island, in Rhode Island. The students act as NYHS spokespeople, give tours of the schooner, and discuss their personal experiences and various environmental issues with visitors.

Leydi plans to go to college, though at this point she’s unsure about a major. She’s found her sea legs aboard the Lettie G. “It feels comfortable,” she says. “The rocking of the boat is like a lullaby, like being held in my mother’s arms.”

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Janette Mendel is a 17-year-old senior from Mexico who came to the United States four years ago not knowing any English. She says she was scared about enrolling at NYHS because the school didn’t have an English as a Second Language program, as it does now. When Janette took the Regents Examinations the first time, she failed the literacy component. But on her second attempt, she scored a 90.

Janette credits her time aboard the Lettie G. for her quick immersion in the English language. She picked up English while learning everything that was expected of her aboard the boat, such as nautical terminology and boathandling, not to mention the coursework involved in her marine-science and technology studies. “One day, Janette got off the Lettie G.,” says Fisher, “and she was so excited about everything she’d learned that she relayed the entire story to me in perfect English without realizing which language she was speaking.”

Janette has cleared another major hurdle by having to regularly climb the 91-foot mast of the Lettie G. “I used to be scared of heights, but not now,” she says. Janette has her sights set on the State University of New York maritime program or the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. She wants to be a doctor and maybe work on a cruise ship.

Heidy Vigil is an 18-year-old senior who came to the United States five years ago from Honduras. “Learning and crewing aboard the Lettie G. has taught me about cooperation and has improved my communication skills,” she says.

Heidy’s favorite thing about being aboard the Lettie G. is crewing at all the schooner’s different stations. She participated in the Summer of Sail and found it thrilling to be out of sight of land. All students had to keep watch for two to four hours at a time. “There were some pretty rough seas,” says Heidy, “and it could be cold and windy on watch sometimes, especially at night.” On the other hand, she says, “They give us cookies and hot chocolate, so it wasn’t so bad at all.” There’s an unwritten-and apparently unenforced-rule of only two cookies per student per watch. “We always sneak more,” says Heidy, “but they never get mad.” Heidy is applying to colleges and wants to be a dentist.

Hassan Barksdale is an 18-year-old senior who had no sailing experience before enrolling at NYHS, but he’s learned fast. “Hassan will be running this waterfront someday,” says Nathan Dudley, the school’s principal and also co-founder. Hassan is interested in marine transportation and works as an intern on the Staten Island ferry. He wants to go to college and perhaps become a boat captain. The best things about NYHS, says Hassan, are “getting onboard experience and meeting new people.”

The skills these kids possess are impressive. They know how to chart courses, taking into account current and wind speed and direction. They’ve taken school classes in boatbuilding and boat design. Environmental stewardship is another central theme of the curriculum, and the students engage in such activities as taking water samples and farming oyster beds. Courses include harbor science, conservation and public policy, marine technology, and environmental law. The Waterkeeper Alliance, another NYHS co-founder, enlists the students as informal stewards in its programs to protect waterways around New York and all over the world.

Maritime studies and sail training are just part of the NYHS education. The college-prep curriculum is well rounded, including courses in chemistry, history, physics, and literature. There are also a variety of nautical extracurricular activities, including a rowing team, a sailing team, water polo, and certification in scuba diving. Behind this impressive daily lineup are the efforts of The Urban Assembly, another NYHS co-founder. Led by Richard Kahan, it’s a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating small, public, college-prep high schools that provide quality education to students who would otherwise attend large, factory-style, underperforming schools. Murray Fisher credits Kahan with being “the muscle that made NYHS happen.”

Making the curriculum successful is a big challenge, as 92 percent of the senior class live below the poverty level, which means they live in a household that earns $18,000 or less per year. Upon enrollment, 90 percent of those seniors were below reading level for their grade, and about 85 percent of incoming students still are; in math, 80 percent of the senior class performed below the average level. “We’re doing six years of work in only four years to get these kids ready for college,” says Dudley. It’s working, as students’ rising grades and test scores prove.
To help secure the school’s future, The Urban Assembly has found land on Governors Island, located in the middle of New York Harbor and just a five-minute ferry ride to the southern tip of Manhattan. NYHS will be in its new home there sometime after September 2008. Meanwhile, keeping with the hands-on style of learning that’s integral to the teaching philosophy of NYHS, students will help design the restoration of the island’s existing historic buildings to house the new school.

NYHS is funded by the city and state of New York, but the programs aboard Lettie G. Howard require an additional $150,000 every year. All of the original grant money used to implement these programs will expire in June 2007, and without new grants, NYHS will have to rely on the generosity of friends and supporters to cover the costs.

Despite the uncertain financial prospects, the future certainly looks bright for this first graduating class of students. “These kids will be my friends for life,” says vice principal Jennifer Ostrow.

For more details, contact the New York Harbor School (718-381-7100, ext. 5120; www.newyorkharborschool.org).

Kitty Martin is a CW associate editor.

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