Do you have a difficult daily commute?  Imagine using four modes of transportation (bus, subway, ferry, plus a 10-minute walk) just to attend high school!

The ferry approaching Governor’s Island, home of the New York Harbor School (photo by Omari Washington).
The students at the New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island make this incredible commitment because their school offers them a unique experience. I knew the school was a high-achieving institution the moment Emily Maxwell, NWF’s Northeast Regional Representative, and I stepped onto the island. We travelled to Governor’s Island to make a pitch for Eco-Schools USA, the international sustainability program for schools that NWF is hosting in the U.S. New York Harbor School’s reputation as a strong, environmentally-focused school made it a definite priority for our outreach.  Following a group of tardy students from the ferry dock to the school (understandable given the commute), I heard one young man silence a fellow student and say, “I want to hear nature.” I’m not sure whether his comment was genuine or a bit of theatrics in the presence of visitors, but either way I was impressed.

Having visited hundreds of schools throughout NYC, I was stunned to be welcomed by a large fish tank as I entered the light-filled school lobby, a change from the metal detector greeting that is unfortunately common in many schools. This interplay of man-made and natural elements became a recurring theme as we toured the school with Murray Fisher, the wonderfully zealous founder of the school. We saw it in the garden outside the school entrance that surrounds a basketball court. There it was again in the woodshop where students were building a sloop (a boat used in New York harbor over a hundred years ago) from scratch.

Students and science at the New York Harbor School.
The intentionality of this school was quite impressive. While student matriculation is a definite sign of success, New York Harbor School has identified an even more dynamic goal for its students. The hope is that every student will leave the school with an acceptance letter at a four-year college and a professional marine credential. The current tenth-graders will be the first class to take all six of the Career and Technical Education Programs, which include Marine Biology Research, Vessels Operations and Professional/Scientific Diving. That means that these students will graduate from high school with skills that can be used immediately, from captaining a ship to underwater archaeology to designing submersible robots.

As I begin implementing NWF’s Eco-Schools USA in New York City, I’m encouraged by this example of a school already creating a deeply sustainable environment for its students. It’s not just the oyster restoration lab or advanced compost system in the cafeteria, but the sense of expectation that the school consistently expresses to its students that is so revealing. This community on a 172-acre island in New York Harbor is developing a path toward a bright and balanced future. In one of the classes we observed, roll call was taken for an optional—yet important—scuba diving course occurring over the weekend. One girl mentioned that it was the weekend of National Puerto Rican Day, a much celebrated holiday in NYC. I watched as the students, many of whom where of Latino descent, contemplated whether they could miss the parties, parade and celebration of their heritage to spend two days diving. Given everything else that I saw at New York Harbor School, I wasn’t surprised when many of the students chose the activity that would lead them into an unfamiliar, but limitless future.

Omari Washington is working as an NWF contractor for Eco-Schools USA.  He is implementing the program in New York City by conducting outreach, providing resources and leading trainings for sustainability coordinators, teachers and principals throughout the city.  Omari is a graduate of Green Mountain College, a small, progressive, environmental liberal arts college in Vermont.  He will continue his education in the fall of 2012 by attending Pratt Institute, where we will pursue a Master’s Degree in Urban Environmental Systems Management.