Educating Our Youth and Restoring Our Ecosystems

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting one of the incredible schools that Robin Hood funds. Going out into the “trenches” and seeing our actual poverty-fighting work is definitely the highlight of our jobs here. It is also a crucial element of the grant making process, as we want to see these programs in action ourselves. I was extremely thankful that the education team invited me along this time.

Last Friday we took the subway downtown to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. We hopped aboard a ferry that chugged along across the harbor over the Governor’s Island. Just walking around the island was a cool experience, as I had never been there.

Governors Island is a 172 acres island, approximately one-half mile from the southern tip of Manhattan. First named by the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, it was called Noten Eylant (and later in pidgin language Nutten Island) from 1611 to 1784. The island’s current name—made official eight years after the 1776 Declaration of Independence—stems from British colonial times when the colonial assembly reserved the island for the exclusive use of New York’s royal governors.

Defensive works were raised on the island in 1776 by Continental Army troops during the American Revolutionary War, and fired upon British ships before falling into enemy hands. From 1783 to 1966, the island was a United States Army post. From 1966 to 1996 the island served as a major United States Coast Guard installation.

On January 19, 2001, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, two of the island’s three historical fortifications were proclaimed a National Monument. On January 31, 2003, 150 acres of the island was transferred to the State of New York for a nominal fee of $1. The remaining (22 acres or 9 ha) was transferred to the United States Department of the Interior as the Governors Island National Monument, administered by the National Park Service.

The 150 acre portion of the island not included in the National Monument is administered by The Trust for Governors Island, an entity of the City of New York and the successor of the joint city/state established redevelopment entity, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. The transfer included deed restrictions which prohibit permanent housing or casinos on the island.

The national historic landmark district, approximately 92 acres (37 ha) of the northern half of the island, is open to the public for several months in the summer and early fall.

During the summer of 2002, Murray Fisher, who worked at Waterkeeper Alliance, posed the question to Richard Kahan, President of Urban Assembly, who started two innovative public high schools in the Bronx; what about a maritime high school? Shortly there after, the New York Harbor School was created.

New York Harbor School

The New York Harbor School focuses on one mission: to use New York’s maritime experience to create a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum that instills in its students the skills and ethic of stewardship. By using New York Harbor as their laboratory for helping learn the skills and content needed for going to college. They swim, row, sail, navigate and study the waters of New York while still preparing to go to college.

Harbor School school boosts a longer day to include enough instruction, not just to prepare students for success in college, but also for a specific maritime career. After introductory coursework in 9th grade, students choose one of the following six programs of study: Vessel Operations, Vessel Engineering, Marine Engineering, Scientific Diving, Aquaculture, Marine Policy. Each of these programs includes a sequence of courses that conclude in a work-based learning experience and a technical assessment that has been designed and approved by industry.

The belief at this school is that students learn best when they feel valuable. By entering the Harbor School, students have committed to, not only improving their own education, but also to improving the ecological health of New York Harbor through their active participation in restoration projects. The Oyster Restoration and Research Project (ORRP) is a partnership effort to establish a thriving oyster population in New York Harbor.

 Until the early 20th century, New York City’s waters were teeming with oysters. Some biologists estimate that the Hudson-Raritan Estuary was once home to half of the world’s oyster population, serving as both an abundant culinary delicacy and a natural water filtration system. Oysters are considered “ecosystem engineers” that shape their environment into complex three-dimensional structures to support themselves and a host of other organisms. Estuaries offer ideal conditions for these diverse ecosystems of marine and plant life to flourish. But now, due to overfishing, the destruction of natural wetlands, poor water quality from sewage overflow and decades of contamination, biodiversity has reached a low point — and the once ubiquitous oyster, a paragon of water filtration and habitat production, has nearly disappeared.

The New York Harbor School is working to reverse that – one oyster at a time. They just completed its second year in 2011. Harbor School students raised 600,000 oysters from larvae in a spat-on-shell facility in their aquaculture class. These juvenile oysters were driven in boats to five separate reef sites with Vessel Operations students, and were ultimately placed on the reefs by Harbor School student SCUBA divers.

The ORRP project’s end goal is to restore 500 acres of oyster reefs by 2015 and 5,000 acres by 2050. And these students are helping lead the charge.

 125 students enrolled in the school its first year; 90% of whom fell “Below” or “Far Below” grade level in math and reading. By 2008 (sorry, I don’t have access to more updated stats!), 80% of their seniors graduated on time and 95% were admitted into college, including Cornell, Skidmore, SUNY Maritime and SUNY Stonybrook. They did say that they anticipate similar numbers this year.

I’d say this school is succeeding. And who knew, success tastes like oysters!

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