New York City is home to one of the world’s largest natural harbors. It seems only natural that there be an institution focused on the lessons one can learn from the city’s overworked estuary. So began the narrative of Murray Fisher and the New York Harbor School.
While working for the environmental watchdog Hudson Riverkeeper as a recent Vanderbilt grad in the late ‘90s, Fisher discovered his passion for education and environmental restoration.
“I was working the river, investigating pollution, working with kids, and it hit me,” Fisher remembers. “There’s such a wide range of skills and aptitudes and interests that go into this, there should be a school that structures its curriculum around this very nature of work.”
Established in 2003 in conjunction with the Urban Assembly, the New York Harbor School (NYHS) enters its tenth year with a burgeoning campus on Governors Island and a growing cadre of impassioned students and faculty. As the school’s founder and program director, Fisher has stewarded the academy from the initial application and grant process and through its infancy in landlocked Bushwick to its current harborside location.
As a local Career and Technical Education school, NYHS provides graduating students with industry-recognized credentials in the marine field, in addition to a traditional academic course of study. “Our goal is that every student graduates with two things in their hands: an acceptance letter to a four-year college and technical credentials in a marine field, so they could walk into a job with the necessary entry level qualifying skills,” Fisher says. Programs of study range from aquaculture—which involves farming underwater organisms—and marine biology to technical vocational training in ocean engineering and vessel operations.
As a limited unscreened school, NYHS offers enrollment to any student in the five boroughs; the current student body draws from 96% of the city’s school districts. Says Fisher, “It’s a small school where every student is known well, and it’s an extremely diverse school in terms of geography, socioeconomic, ethnic, and academic backgrounds. It’s very hard to serve that wide a range, but it’s a challenge that we really cherish. We believe that a diverse educational setting is precisely where young people learn best.”
Vital to the school’s mission is the restoration of the local estuary, the eponymous waterway. “New York Harbor is our classroom. Wouldn’t it make sense if we as an institution were more committed to making our local environment a cleaner, better-functioning ecosystem?” Along this line of thinking, Fisher and his staff developed the Billion Oyster Project, aimed at building and promoting thriving oyster colonies throughout the harbor. “That means a more robust, bountiful classroom for our students and a healthier local ecosystem. They clarify the water, create habitat, and slow down wave and current activity—which is vital if you want to fight the issue of storm surges, which, as we’ve seen, can be a major problem.”
As a new dad with an infant daughter, Grayson, Fisher finds himself thinking more and more about how his own child would experience the school. “I think it would be a shame to devote yourself to promoting a school and not be totally certain about sending your own daughter there,” he notes.
But while Grayson is still many years away from the ninth grade entry point, it’s evident that she’ll soon start to learn many of the school’s great lessons about stewardship directly from her father.
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