As a boat horn pierces an overcast Monday morning on Manhattan’s South Street, a stampede of teenagers rushes toward the 8 o’clock ferry bound for Governors Island – carrying backpacks, headphones and several fishing poles.
If they miss this ferry, they will be late for the first period at the New York Harbor School. This maritime public high school is training the next generation of environmental stewards who will be better equipped to manage a planet rapidly approaching its global warming tipping point. And its hands-on curriculum prepares graduates for the green and sustainable jobs in the maritime sector — from scientific research to underwater welding.
The Harbor School, which is now in its 20th year of operation, is looking to expand. Its educational facility currently only has enough space for around 500 students. The campus is planning to double in size by 2026 with the addition of two buildings, allowing for enrollment of up to 1,000 students.
The students come from as far as the Rockaways and the Bronx. Many of them wake up as early as 5 a.m., like senior Trinity Jennings-Pagan, who lives on Staten Island. She takes a bus to the first of two trains to the ferry, and then walks about 10 minutes to the Governors Island campus.
Jennings-Pagan studies marine biology, one of the seven education pathways offered at the school. Other tracks include scuba diving, water vessel operations and ocean engineering, and all are steeped in real-world learning. In one of her classes, Jennings-Pagan tested ECOncrete, an alternative to standard concrete that promotes biodiversity. The flat, smooth concrete traditionally used to build piers and seawalls repels marine life because it lacks the rocks, rough contours and nooks that creatures like oysters favor for shelter.
Concrete also leaches chemicals called hydroxyl ions, which increase the pH of water and can harm or kill aquatic wildlife. ECOncrete's textured surface has voids where sea creatures can create homes. It also has an added component to make it chemically balanced and prevent leaching.
Students in the aquaculture program learn to farm fish and oysters sustainably by actually doing it. The lab has large floor tanks of tilapia and turtles as well as bursting green towers of hydroponics. Marine advocacy and policy students testify before City Hall and engage in community outreach projects, such as rallying for access to free ferry service for all New York City high school students. Ocean engineering students design, build and test technology for underwater use, such as remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles.
The planned expansion is needed because the school gets almost 10 applications in enrollment lottery for every open seat in its freshman class. With no admissions requirements other than eligibility to enroll in a New York City public high school, the school's graduation rate is over 90% and nearly all its graduates are accepted into a college, according to principal Jeffrey Chetirko.
“This is a huge career opportunity for our students,” said Mike Cohen, partnership manager at the New York Harbor School. “It really spans across the programs because [for offshore wind energy], they're going to need people to maintain the equipment, people to drive the boats to get people out, to maintain the equipment, they're gonna need people doing permitting.”
The unscreened admissions process means that a freshman class of 140 can come from any borough and have a wide range of academic abilities and experiences. Students with disabilities make up one-quarter of the student body, double the citywide average, according to Chetirko. The school also aims to have economically disadvantaged students make up 70% of the incoming cohort's seats.
Using Governors Island as an environmental laboratory, Harbor School students investigate the local human impacts on New York City’s waterways and coastal areas, while exploring solutions to mitigate those problems.
Even after the dismissal bell rings at 2:44 p.m., only a few students race to catch the next ferry off the island. Instead, their extracurricular time consists of collecting trash that’s washed ashore and classifying what’s in it for lab credit.
Others crowd around a large screen above a set of boat controls to learn man-overboard drills and basic navigation on New York waters. The school's athletes — known as the Sharks — take to the water on the rowing and sailing teams. On the pier, some students drop their fishing lines and watch the sunset.
“By the time I leave here most days, it's so dark outside,” said Jennings-Pagan, who is also the student body president. She said she often gets home as late as 8 p.m. and that she takes pictures of the skyline all the time because “it's super beautiful.”
After-school clubs are an extension of the school’s classrooms, which tie experiential learning to academic studies. Students get practical work experience including testing local water quality and composting the school’s food waste as well as cataloging it.
“The maritime industry is mainly white and male, and a lot of the students that come to Harbor School that aren't white and aren't male have now opportunities to get into that maritime industry and break through,” said Chetirko, who added that the school is around 60% students of color.
From 8:30 a.m. until 2:44 p.m.
The Harbor School opened in 2003, far away from the water. Its original campus on the fourth floor of Bushwick High School had an inaugural class of 125 students, mostly from the immediate neighborhood.
The school’s mission is to prepare pupils for college as well as train and certify students for technical careers. Chetriko said that stewardship of the planet and local waterways is deeply woven into every aspect of student life, now on Governors Island. The school moved there in 2010, so enrollees could learn to protect, conserve and restore the environment as they learn to work in it.
In the last 15 years, graduates have made careers driving boats for the New York City Ferry system or entered SUNY Maritime College, but this is not the expectation for every student. On one of the last ferries off the island, students expressed an interest in a variety of fields such as journalism, agriculture, pharmacology, and environmental advocacy and policy.
Jennings-Pagan, who said she has loved marine biology since the fifth grade, is applying to Harvard to study the subject with the goal of becoming an environmental lawyer.
“The opportunity to do that in high school was something that I didn't see coming at all. I thought that it was in the distant future – college,.” Jennings-Pagan said. “I'm actually making an impact on the world around me. It’s really fulfilling.”
The other four courses of study are technical education tracks. Professional scuba divers, boat operators, marine mechanics, and technicians who can weld and fabricate are all in-demand given the growing offshore energy industry. Green jobs make up one-fifth of New York’s total employment numbers, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects the sector will continue to grow through this decade.
I'm actually making an impact on the world around me. It’s really fulfilling.
The school has more than 300 industry partners that support learning, including the Billion Oyster Project and the U.S. Coast Guard – all of which provide instruction, internships and career opportunities.
“We really intend to get our students out into these jobs,” Cohen said. “With the expansion of the school, we anticipate creating a program specifically based around offshore wind.”
When the last whistle blows
After hours, students cram shoulder to shoulder in a lab for one of the school’s most popular organizations, the Harbor SEALs, where the focus of the day is trash.
“There is an enormous amount of pollution, plastic pollution in the New York harbor,” said senior Arlo Kane, who is applying to the University of Vermont to study toxicology and plant biology. “It's like hundreds of kilograms of trash – lots. Like people really don't care about what they're throwing into the harbor.”
Freshmen and sophomores in Harbor SEALs climb the rocky waterfront with ladders and harnesses, collecting rubbish that has washed ashore. In the hour or so that the crew is out there, they can easily gather more than a half-dozen large garbage bags. Juniors and seniors serve as project leaders who process and analyze what comes in from the field.
“We’ve found a dead bird tied up in fishing line. We’ve found a few messages in bottles… they’re written in Arabic, but that’s the little jar over there,” Kane said, pointing. “We find a lot of cannabis products, a lot of smoking products.”
Plastic and Styrofoam constitute the majority of what comes ashore, and the Harbor SEALs also monitor water quality during their fieldwork. The data is shared publicly via social media, community outreach with stakeholders, and student-published papers. Members have testified before City Hall concerning the pollution of local waterways and marine debris.
“I feel like my reward for doing this isn't just like a good grade,” said Kane, who lives in Queens. “I'm actually doing something to contribute to the world. I'm actually doing something valuable.”
Another after-school organization is Future Farmers of America. Teens in this extracurricular activity tend gardens, experimenting with different plants and growing conditions. Even the boat simulation station is crowded after hours, with nearly 20 students trying to navigate under the series of bridges along the Brooklyn waterfront without crashing.
“Leadership and working as a team is really at the base of all of these programs,” Cohen said.
Doubling in size for the scuba team
The move to double the school's facilities by 2026 is happening, in part, to support its scuba diving students. They currently travel to a pool in Bushwick for practice. Class time plus preparing, loading and transporting their gear adds about five hours after school three times per week, plus one weekend day. One of the new buildings will include a short-course pool for their studies.
Students enter the scuba diving track with no experience, with some not even knowing how to swim. Instructors teach the basics as well as safety before students venture underwater. The three-year curriculum culminates in a professional scuba diving certification from the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. The degree goes beyond a standard scuba license and equips students to conduct scientific research underwater or join the rescue dive teams of the NYPD and FDNY, which some graduates go on to do.
“We do work with the Billion Oyster Project, and we assist with oyster monitoring,” said Joseph Jimenez, a scuba diving teacher and member of the Harbor School's class of 2016. “So going down to a reef that's been planted and checking the condition, and growth mortality, all kinds of surveys like that as part of the scientific diving.”
That same building will also house a full-sized gymnasium and four science labs. The other new building will actually be a complete renovation of an existing structure on the island that’s been donated to the school. It will contain 12 new classrooms.
With the new extra space, the Harbor School wants to also expand maritime education and climate research to start as early as elementary school — and add an associate degree to the high school through a collegiate partner such as CUNY.
Last year, a new Middle Harbor School opened in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Chetirko said this is the beginning of a pipeline that will start in kindergarten and take the learning all the way through college.
“One of the big things about the school that makes it really amazing to be a student is this kind of culture is responsibility and that it's given to students,” Jimenez said. “They accept and take on a lot of responsibility from their teachers and their mentors.”