New York Harbor School: Interview with Founding Principal Nate Dudley

Back in October, I got in touch with the folks at New York Harbor School on the eve of their First Annual Regatta, a nautical event to celebrate the school’s work bringing a unique brand of maritime education to the city’s students.

Harbor School students at work in the waters of NYC

I discovered the Harbor School while auditing a course for Special Education leaders at New York’s Bank Street College back in February. I was impressed to encounter a US institution which brought together public education with a strong community commitment and a fearsome range of practical training including marine technology, commercial diving and aquaculture!

In my teens I was keener to skive off kayaking lessons and sneak out to Birmingham for shopping and pizza than get on the water. Now, at 31, I can only dream of the kind of maritime opportunities the Harbor School offers its students.

Nate Dudley, the founding principal, got in touch with me by e-mail to discuss the educational adventure currently taking place on Governor’s Island in New York.

“Schools are always looking for ‘real world’ connections to make learning more ‘authentic’,” he explained.  “Our projects and many of the students’ classes have a real world basis. They’re not just projects created for the school.”

The Harbor School is pioneering a curriculum blending environmental awareness, practical sea skills and hands-on learning, with an emphasis on responsibility for the world around us. To Nate, part of the school’s mission is to develop a sense of stewardship in students, a duty of care to both the harbor environment and the wider community:

“We believe in engaging students by using New York’s greatest resource: the Harbor is the reason that New York City is here in the first place.  Students’ work will have a lasting impact on the health of New York Harbor. We believe schools should be connecting to their local eco-systems everywhere and helping to keep them healthy.”

At a time when the US is riven by the debate surrounding school reform, the team at New York Harbor School are concentrating on their local work, sustained by curriculum development, community relations, and the wider issue of environmental responsibility.

At a Brooklyn Academy of Music event earlier this year, I saw Geoffrey Canada, star of the documentary Waiting for Superman, saying teachers ought to be treated and paid ‘like lawyers’ – working an 80 hour week, and being judged on their students’ test results. Meanwhile, the likes of Diane Ravitch seek to counter the business- and performance-driven reforms by turning to Finland and other countries for an alternative model of education.

Nate refuses to be drawn far on these issues, instead remaining focussed on the local contribution of Harbor School students to their community and environment.

“Murray Fisher of Waterkeeper Alliance founded our school in 2003 along with Richard Kahan, the president of Urban Assembly, which had started other small schools in NYC. Small schools tend to work because student are well known by the teachers and form a sense of community.  Our school works hard to create that community by living our mission to connect students to Harbor.”

One such project which Nate is particularly proud of is the Oyster Restoration scheme for the Harbor – with all of the school’s departments contributing to a project repopulating New York’s waters. The school is thinking big, and thinking long-term: “We currently have five oyster reefs in development, and we’re aiming to put a billion oysters in the water over the next 20 years,” says Nate.

To find out more about the New York Harbor School, visit them online or watch their online documentary at

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