A little more than a week after the State of the Union address where President Obama spoke about redesigning high schools to equip graduates with the skills that employers demand, Secretary Duncan and several Department of Education staff (myself included) visited a school in New York City that meets this challenge head on. Located on Governors Island and accessible only by boat, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School was established back in 2003 with one goal in mind: preparing students for success in college and careers through restoration of the local marine environment.
All Harbor School students enroll in the New York State Regents-based academic courses and then select one of six career and technical education (CTE) programs–Aquaculture, Marine Biology Research, Marine Service Technology, Ocean Engineering, Scientific Diving or Vessel Operations. Through a combination of school-based, harbor-based and community-based activities, students build and operate boats, spawn and harvest millions of oysters, design submersible remotely operated vehicles and conduct real-life research. The school boasts a professional advisory committee of more than 60 businesses, industry groups, postsecondary partners and foundations.
Through their courses of study, students earn industry-recognized certifications and licenses, as well as postsecondary credits that will give them a leg up regardless of their immediate plans after high school. Some students clearly had aspirations of on-water careers. (The captain of our ferry over to the island was a Harbor School graduate.) Other students were interested in engineering, architecture or construction. Still others were interested in a completely unrelated field. For each student, what seemed to matter most was the hands-on, real-life application of learning. They indicated that school was exciting, challenging and relevant. Harbor School’s 430 students come from all five of New York’s boroughs, some beginning their trek to Governors Island as early as 5:30 in the morning—first by bus, then subway and, finally, by boat. Now that’s commitment!
At the end of our tour on Feb. 22, one student asked Secretary Duncan what he had learned. With National CTE Month coming to a close, Arne responded by saying that now, more than ever, he is convinced that this country’s debate about whether to prepare students for college or careers is artificial. He indicated that the conversation really needs to shift toward how to prepare all students for college and careers, and that Harbor School was a phenomenal example of just how to do that.
“This school is on to something really, really special,” Arne said. “This is a very different vision of what a high school can be. What if we had more of these?” Graduation rates would go up, he predicted, and dropout rates would go down.
Harbor School matches closely the President’s vision for the future of American high schools. Stay tuned for more details on his plan.
Sharon Miller is director of ED’s Division of Academic and Technical Education in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education.