Did you know that there is a public maritime high school in New York City? The New York Harbor School is the only one of its kind in the city. There’s only one way to get to class and it’s not a school bus. For Harbor kids, the last leg of their commute runs once an hour: the Governors Island Ferry. The Harbor School’s location is intentional. Learning from and within the water, students gain maritime skills as they work on restoring the devastated oyster reefs around them, one shell at a time.
As part of its programming, the New York Harbor School partners with the Billion Oyster Project, a New York Harbor oyster restoration project that runs educational activities, restaurant oyster recycling initiatives and other programs throughout the city. Here on Governors Island, students become responsible citizens, inquisitive scientists and caring supporters of the reef.
The history of New York City’s oysters is a tragic one. Dredging, pollution and over harvesting throughout the last four centuries have almost entirely decimated New York’s oyster supply, which once counted 220,000 acres of oyster beds. Improbably, given the city-wide partnerships for oyster restoration, there is once again hope for the reefs.
Admission to the Harbor School follows the standard New York City public school protocol: enter 12 choices in a ranked list, cross your fingers and wait for the lottery results. The Harbor School recommends that students ask themselves: “Would I enjoy spending time on, in, or near the water?”
And if the lottery’s a dud, and the student’s first choice doesn’t involve crustacean smells and boating plans? The orientation – here it’s called “in-docking” – eases students into the marine component, helping them choose CTEs (Career and Technical Education Coursework) and get excited about the coursework. It seems to be working. The Harbor School draws in students from 98% of New York’s school district and from all five boroughs.
The Billion Oyster Project funds any equipment and tuition that exceed the requirements for a regular public high school. The project’s fund investment is returned in targeted research and driven commitment to rebuilding the reefs. The students become – to quote one of the administrators – “stewards” of the harbor, caring for the fledgling oysters and solving new, relevant and immediate problems.
When it comes to science experiments, the students and their scientist mentors have bigger fish to fry. Their hypotheses take on questions directly concerned with the reef: Why is this colony failing? What salinity is ideal for this brine shrimp or that oyster?
For half of the day, Harbor School students get the typical public school treatment: English, Social Studies, Math and so on. After that, students choose from seven programs: Aquaculture, Marine Biology Research, Marine Systems Technology, Ocean Engineering, Professional Diving, Vessel Operations, and Harbor Class.
They also receive industry certifications and courses taught by professionals. Specialized equipment, including everything from safety lifesaving jackets to a boat simulator, is available to help students learn the skills in the most direct way possible allowing to truly contribute the school’s partnership with the Billion Oyster Project.
During the summertime, while majority of students are gone, the Billion Oyster Project classrooms are kept busy as researchers from the Nature Conservancy measure feeding conditions. Aquariums sit ready for the start of the school year inside. Outside, floating cages built by the students themselves for breeding oysters, dry out in the sun. They will soon be used to accommodate spats (baby oysters).
The Harbor School and Billion Oyster Project together have much to brag about. Twenty million oysters have been replanted in the harbor. It’s only a fraction of a billion, but more than anyone would have hoped a couple of years ago. This July, the school won First Place in the Con Edison Cardboard Kayak Race on City of Water Day.
As the summer winds down, emotions are running high about the next project on the docket: the students’ seven-year effort to build a sloop. Eric, a summer intern and Harbor student, follows an intricate plan as he works on the prized wooden boat in a shed that the students built themselves. Soon, the boat will be ready to set sail at the September Regatta. This immense project draws on the inspiring dual nature of a Harbor School experience, which is at once educational and ecological.
On September 15th, the 7th Annual New York Harbor Regatta Bash will be held on Governors Island, following a competition of New Yorkers sailing nose-to-nose in the New York Harbor. All proceeds from the bash – hosted at Oyster Bar, with music, flowing drinks and the company of racing teams – will go towards the work of the Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project.
As the school year approaches, there’s one more freshman joining the Class of 2021. Minutes away from the ferry pier, a new eatery has opened up: The Oyster Bar. Their specialty is, unsurprisingly, oyster, also, coolly-mixed drinks and stunning views of the New York skyline.
“Got Shells?” asks a van parked not far from the ferry. The hope is that with strong support, scientific expertise and student curiosity, the answer will one day be: “Yes – a billion of ’em!”