Students at New York’s Harbor School Chart Their Course for College and Careers

Arne Duncan - Visit to Governors Island, NY

Secretary Arne Duncan visited New York City's Harbor School last Friday. The school has a robust CTE program that is preparing its students for college and career. Photo by Andy Kropa for the U.S. Department of Education.

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.

Arne Duncan - Visit to Governors Island, NY

Harbor School students work on experiments. Photo by Andy Kropa for the U.S. Department of Education.

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.


  1. Inspirational post. To find a career path that is fulfilling and in balance with your full range of values; from how you want to be spending your work time and the legacy you want to leave, to how much money you want to be making.

  2. Schools such as the Harbor School should be allowed the opportunity to be exempt from standardized testing and follow a portfolio model of education so they can focus more on CTE and college preparation. Then you will really so how fabulous these schools can be!

  3. Skills gaps are emerging in today’s economy, and a solution that’s proven to make a difference in helping the economy thrive is investing in career and technical education (CTE). CTE programs, whether at the secondary, post-secondary or other educational level, boost student achievement and deliver increased career and earning potential. CTE also produces workers for the open jobs of today, and boosts business productivity and economic status as a result. This is just one example of a local program that can have a big impact in this area.

    The Industry Workforce Needs Council is a new organization of businesses working together to spotlight skills gaps and advocate/kick off CTE programs that work to curb the problem. For more information, or to join the effort, visit the IWNC website.

    Jason Sprenger, for the IWNC

  4. Walk the walk with ENOUGH EDUCATION FUNDING to assist school districts accomplish this. HANDS-ON with brain engaged equals well-prepared graduate to take on the future.

  5. Thanks to Secretary Duncan for embracing CTE Month and calling attention to the value of CTE by visiting New York’s Harbor School! Career readiness requires more than college readiness but the Secretary is correct that more needs to be done to address career preparation and college preparation. College – the new definition, which includes many postsecondary options – needs to be viewed as an important part of career preparation since most careers will require some form of postsecondary and many of us will continue to go back for additional education and training throughout our careers. Secretary Duncan’s visit and focus on CTE at the secondary level will help more people to explore these issues and recognize the value of institutions, such as Harbor School, which engage students in learning and help them to apply that learning to a career pathway that works for each of them.

  6. Harbor school is an example of making the teaching and learning process a practical reality. I have been a proponent of these ideas for the last 35 years. This idea is even more important for the ESE community.

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