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NYC school makes harbor its classroom

Justin Pope
AP Education Writer

New York — In 1790, the state of New York set aside Governors Island, off the tip of Manhattan, for the benefit of education. For more than two centuries, however, it was in military hands, guarding the country’s most important harbor.

Soon, the original terms of that grant will at last be honored, and it seems fitting that a public school devoted to New York Harbor itself will be the first non-military tenant to occupy the island’s red-brick buildings.

It’s been a decade since Murray Fisher first imagined the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, and six years since it opened in what were supposed to be short-term quarters in landlocked central Brooklyn.

Sometime next year it will at last move to a permanent waterfront home here.

Fisher, a boyish-looking, blond-haired 35-year-old Virginia native, poured the better part of his late 20s and early 30s into getting his dream started in Brooklyn. Most of the rest he’s spent cajoling and battling bureaucrats and developers, fighting to secure just a few feet of the city’s 600 miles of waterfront for his creation.

New York Harbor is by some measures the biologically richest body of water in North America, and Fisher can hardly believe how little notice most New Yorkers pay 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 live in Kansas. Fisher wants to reconnect them to the body that explains and enriches the city’s existence.

New York Harbor School instructor Roy Arezzo (right) chants along with a line of his students May 28 as they raise the huge sail aboard the Clearwater, a vintage Hudson River sloop, in New York Harbor.   AP Photo by Kathy Willens

New York Harbor School instructor Roy Arezzo (right) chants along with a line of his students May 28 as they raise the huge sail aboard the Clearwater, a vintage Hudson River sloop, in New York Harbor. AP Photo by Kathy Willens

When Fisher decided to try and make the Harbor School a reality in 2002, his was one of 86 proposals to start public schools in the city that year. New York was at the forefront of the small schools movement, closing more than two dozen giant, failing city high schools and replacing them with smaller institutions.

Fisher began scoping out sites and recruiting teachers and partners. His quest for a principal 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. Ninety-six percent of Harbor School students 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 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.

“The key is having a waterfront that we own and manage so we’re not asking anyone’s permission,” Fisher says. “So that 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.”

For four years, Murray pursued sites all over the city — the South Street Seaport Museum and old Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan, old piers, warehouses and factories lining the waterfront from Red Hook, Brooklyn north to Queens.

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.”

While pursuing other sites, Fisher kept his eye on 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 big-name real estate developers.

The competitors were all offering to pay the city and state, Kahan recalled. Fisher’s proposal asked for $34 million to build a new school.

But he hammered home his arguments for the Harbor School and its mission — and in November 2006 the authority overseeing Governors Island named Fisher’s school the winner. City and state pledged the construction money.

Four years later than promised, the 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. He fires off notes to raise money 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.

But he knows to build a lasting institution he must focus on the work that takes place off-campus — schmoozing donors, politicians and partners. The school’s supplemental water programs cost $1,000 per student, per year, on top of the school’s public money. In addition, it will cost $1.6 million just to begin renovating a second Governors Island building that’s essential for the site to reach its full potential.

For Fisher, as for his students, time spent on the water makes all the difference. It replenishes his energy, and reminds 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.”

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