The promise of a new school year beckoned on Wednesday and students at the New York Harbor School will either sink or swim — and it’s part of the curriculum.
As most high school students drearily trudged back to landlocked brick buildings for first period algebra, 400 high school students took a ferry to school on their own island where they learned how to grow oysters and SCUBA dive.
The Harbor School at Governors Island was open for business.
“This is one of the great opportunities of my life,” said Harbor Principal Nathan Dudley. “I feel humbled, grateful and proud. I’m grateful to the mayor and the city for building this school on the island.”
For seven years, the small public school shared a building with three other schools on Irving Street in Bushwick — far from bodies of water larger than a puddle inside a discarded tire. And field trips to sites on the harbor sometimes lasted several hours, wasting the time of students and teachers.
So school officials hatched a plan to move to a campus.
After years of fundraising and negotiations with the city, school officials’ seaside dreams came true. On Wednesday morning, scores of eager students boarded a ferry and arrived to a state-of-the-art school building with piers, oyster beds, and a boat basin.
The school’s maritime curriculum, which featured classes such as aquaculture, technology, and sailing, will also be expanded to take advantage of the resources available to them on Governors Island and nearby ports.
The students couldn’t wait to plunge into diving and maritime tech electives.
Hanaa Butcher, a junior from Coney Island, enrolled in aquaculture, and was excited that she would finally get her own fish to raise — a tilapia specimen she already named “Ziggy.” She hopes that her new friend won’t find its way onto the school cafeteria’s menu, as several fish did at the end of the school year in June.
Many schools say that their students are the future, but at the Harbor School, these kids really are playing an important leadership role. One of the major elements of the curriculum calls for all students to plant beds oysters under a floating dock — a crucial act towards eventually cleaning up the city’s harbor.
Once home to nine billion oysters, decades of dredging, pollution and overfishing decimated the region’s shellfish population. The oyster is a natural water filter and a baseline component of the river’s health — and Harbor School students are on the front lines of restoring the ecosystem’s hearty bivalve vacuum cleaners.
“I would love to see students plant several million oysters over the next 10 years,” said Fabien Cousteau, a Harbor School board member and grandson of iconic oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. “If we can get oysters to start propagating themselves, the Hudson will be in better shape.”
On the first day of school, Dudley exhorted new students to begin thinking about attending college and their futures, no matter where they came from.
“To me you are a blank slate,” said Dudley. “You get to write your own history. If you got suspended in junior high school every other week, I don’t care. It’s what you do right now.”
For upperclassmen, such as junior Ashley Rodriguez of East Flatbush, the future can wait a few years.
“I wish they had a New York Harbor School college,” said Rodriguez. “That would be cool. They should have one in Governors Island.”