Image: Aerial photo shows Governors Island in New York harbor, with Manhattan in the background center.
Mark Lennihan  /  AP file
The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School will relocate to a renovated Coast Guard hospital on the Governors Island in the fall of 2010. Manhattan is in the background center.
updated 8/23/2009 4:17:12 PM ET 2009-08-23T20:17:12

In 1790, the state of New York set aside Governors Island, off the tip of Manhattan, for the benefit of education. For more than two centuries, however, it was in military hands, guarding the country's most important harbor.

Soon, the original terms of that grant will at last be honored, and it seems fitting that a public school devoted to New York Harbor itself will be the first non-military tenant to occupy the island's red-brick buildings.

It's been a decade since Murray Fisher first imagined the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, and six years since it opened in what were supposed to be short-term quarters in landlocked central Brooklyn. Sometime next year, it will at last move to a permanent waterfront home here.

Fisher, a boyish-looking, blond-haired 35-year-old Virginia native, poured the better part of his late 20s and early 30s into getting his dream started in Brooklyn. Most of the rest he's spent cajoling and battling bureaucrats and developers, fighting to secure just a few feet of the city's 600 miles of waterfront for his creation.

First proposed school in ’02
New York Harbor is by some measures the biologically richest body of water in North America, and Fisher can hardly believe how little notice most New Yorkers pay it.

Wooden piers once extended from nearly every city cross street, but today water access is elusive. Most city kids — especially the poor, minority kids the school serves — might as well live in Kansas. Fisher wants to reconnect them to the body that explains and enriches the city's existence.

Fisher's great uncle was LeMoyne Billings, a prep school friend of John F. Kennedy. The president's nephew, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., spent summers during high school working on a ranch Fisher's parents managed in Colombia.

Image: Urban Assembly New York Harbor School student Kiana Horne, right, with on-board instructor Francis Cruz
Kathy Willens  /  AP
Urban Assembly New York Harbor School student Kiana Horne, right, looks at small flounder-like fish found in the Hudson River with on-board instructor Francis Cruz while on a field trip aboard the Clearwater in New York Harbor.

Years later, after reading Kennedy's book "The Riverkeepers," a call for citizens to take responsibility for the bodies of water around them, Fisher wrote to Kennedy, and eventually went to work for the groups Hudson Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.

It was long hours and low pay, investigating pollution complaints and speaking to school groups. But all along the Hudson, he met people with little formal education whose environmental stewardship had nonetheless taught them to communicate, make arguments and lead.

Fisher realized he himself was learning a range of skills he had never fully picked up, even in college at Vanderbilt.

Suddenly, it hit him.

"This should be a school," he thought.

His was one of 86 proposals to start public schools in the city in 2002. New York was at the forefront of the small schools movement, closing more than two dozen giant, failing city high schools and replacing them with smaller institutions.

He took his proposal to Richard Kahan, the leader of a network of small schools called Urban Assembly, who guided him through the city's bureaucratic and political waters. Meanwhile, Fisher began scoping out sites and recruiting teachers and partners. His quest for a principal led him to Nate Dudley, a former Yale football player then teaching in the South Bronx.

Image: Murray Fisher
Kathy Willens  /  AP
Murray Fisher, founder of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, got the idea for the school after his work with environmental groups.

In September 2003, the Harbor School welcomed its first 125 freshmen. The location: supposedly temporary quarters in the old Bushwick High.

Bushwick, a vibrant but low-income, immigrant neighborhood, was the kind of community Fisher wanted to serve. Just one problem: It happens to be far from water.

"Hey, we're from the Harbor School," Fisher introduced himself, arriving to inspect the new digs for the first time.

A security guard glanced up.

"Ain't no harbor in Bushwick, sweetie," she shot back.

Traveling to 17 water sites
Harbor School freshmen, taking an intensive year-long introductory course about the harbor, travel a combined 300 miles by bus and subway to 17 sites on the water, from Jamaica Bay to the Hudson.

"We decided from the get-go we weren't going to let our distance stop us," says Dudley, adding that the students "know more about the estuary than any other students in the city, and more than most adults."

Ninety-six percent of Harbor School students are black or Hispanic; three-quarters come from families poor enough to qualify for a federal free lunch. Only 15 percent of incoming freshmen can swim (85 percent pass a swim test by graduation).

Their destination one afternoon last spring was the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they boarded a replica Hudson River sloop and education vessel, the Clearwater.

Out on the river, students rotated among four learning stations — history, navigation, fish and water quality. Volunteer educators peppered them with questions. Who was Henry Hudson? Is the tide an ebb or a flow? How do we signal other boats we're fishing?

Still not satisfied
At the old Bushwick High, just 22 percent of students graduated. The Harbor School's first class of seniors, in 2007, graduated at a rate of 65 percent. That rose to 75 percent in 2008 and was 70 percent for the class of 2009.

Few have parents who attended college; last year at least 90 percent of graduates moved on. Most enroll in community colleges, but many attend four-year schools, including marine programs at state universities and a handful have reached the Ivy League.

Still, Fisher is unsatisfied. The school is doing well with the 20 percent of students he calls "true believers" — arriving with or acquiring genuine excitement about the water-focused mission. But he hasn't proven the other key element of his idea: that the curriculum can boost the academic achievement of the other 80 percent.

Governors Island won't be a panacea, but if nothing else, there will be far fewer hours wasted on subways and school buses.

"The key is having a waterfront that we own and manage so we're not asking anyone's permission," Fisher says. "So that if it's 7 a.m. and there's a blitz of bluefish out there a teacher can go with students right then."

Maritime learning gets a lot more exciting when the water isn't just imaginary.

"A lot of the power of building a boat is you get to use the boat," Fisher says. "Our kids have no place to use the boats they build."

NYU, developers also wanted island spot
For four years, Murray pursued sites all over the city — the South Street Seaport Museum and old Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan, old piers, warehouses and factories lining the waterfront from Red Hook, Brooklyn north to Queens.

In real estate, money talks.

"There's 600 miles of waterfront in New York City, and every single person wants a piece," Fisher says.

"It's not as cynical as developers don't want 400 black kids in their neighborhood," he adds. But, "that's part of it."

While pursuing other sites, Fisher kept his eye on Governors Island, which had been turned over to the city and state. It was ideal, but a longshot. In the final round of 25 proposals, he was up against heavy hitters like New York University and big-name real estate developers.

Image: Brian Mohan, left, shows students from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School a rubber float
Kathy Willens  /  AP
Board instructor Brian Mohan, left, shows students from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School a rubber float while helping them learn on a field trip aboard the vintage Hudson River sloop the Clearwater in New York Harbor.
The competitors were all offering to pay the city and state, Kahan recalled. Fisher's proposal asked for $34 million to build a new school.

But he hammered home his arguments for the Harbor School and its mission — and in November 2006 the authority overseeing Governors Island named Fisher's school the winner. City and state pledged the construction money.

Four years later than promised, the Harbor School's name would at last shed its irony.

Time on water makes a difference
Officially, Fisher's job title is "founder and program director" but he is involved in almost every aspect of the school. He fires off fundraising notes and drops in on faculty, budget and hiring meetings. Between classes, he steps into the hall to ride herd over the noisy stampede of students.

A remarkable number recall a moment when Fisher's force of personality nudged them. Tanasia Swift, a recent graduate now studying marine vertebrates at Stony Brook Southampton, says Fisher helped her line up jobs and internships, and persuaded her to join an educational program in the Bahamas during her junior year. Darryl Gilbert, now an aspiring ship's captain, says Fisher stopped him in the hall until he agreed to take an internship at South Street Seaport.

Image: New York Harbor School instructor Roy Arezzo, right, chants along with a line of his students as they raise the huge sail aboard the Clearwater
Kathy Willens  /  AP
New York Harbor School instructor Roy Arezzo, right, chants along with a line of his students as they raise the huge sail aboard the Clearwater, a vintage Hudson River sloop.

Fisher says he's happiest one-on-one with students, but there's another reason he hangs around: Without his eye to the sextant, Fisher worries the school could go the way of other "themed" high schools that have drifted from their original mission.

But he knows to build a lasting institution he must focus on the work that takes place off-campus — schmoozing donors, politicians and partners. The school's supplemental water programs cost $1,000 per student, per year, on top of the school's public funding. In addition, it will cost $1.6 million just to begin renovating a second Governors Island building that's essential for the site to reach its full potential.

With so many duties, Fisher regrets the days are gone when he could regularly tag along on field trips, and knew every student by name. His day on the Clearwater was a rare indulgence. As the students disembarked, he quizzed himself, saying their names aloud. Devin. Shanice. Shalie....

For Fisher, as for his students, time spent on the water makes all the difference. It replenishes his energy, and reminds him what his creation is supposed to look like.

Then it's back to work.

"I have to create an institution where those experiences are replicated more often," he says. "And that's what Governors Island is for."

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