A New York High School Is Using Oysters In Its Curriculum–And To Protect The City’s Coastline

At New York’s Harbor School, students learn on the water, as they help restore the city’s marine ecosystem–and protect the city from the climate disasters to come.

On a hot day in June, on a tiny island in view of the Statue of Liberty, 85 teens from New York City graduated from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a themed high school where many of the lessons in math, civics, and science occurred on boats or underwater on scuba missions.


At the Harbor School, literature classes leaned to Life on the Mississippi, math problems ran to boats. Today, it’s forging a unique effort to make ordinary city kids thrive as leaders in and on the urban waterfront. It admits students by lottery, so a young person from landlocked Queens can as easily gain admission as anyone who grew up sailing. In 2010, the school moved its operations to Governors Island (it was founded in 2003), a cupcake-shaped former military base. Now it’s in the midst of rolling out a three-year curriculum that aims to lock in competitive skills through on-water experience.

That curriculum reflects a partnership with the Billion Oyster Project, an organization that collects oyster shells from restaurants and enlists students to create reefs from the shells, which in turn create places for new oysters to breed. As oysters spawn, the surviving ones filter the water, which makes it clean enough for other fish to come back. And as shell piles grow, they can potentially block the storm-surge waves that climate change will dump on Manhattan every so often. Oysters once meant big business in Manhattan. They made for fine fishing, spurred commercial farming, and fostered a healthy range of species. Overuse killed them over the decades. The Billion Oyster project wants to bring them back, with the help of the Harbor School students

At the school, kids learn oyster habitat and fish farming, along with vessel operations, marine biology, marine systems, professional diving, and “ocean engineering.” They don scuba gear, assemble wire cages for oyster shells, hammer together boats and study tanks for signs of fish health. Fisher and his team moved to this sequence, which has students rotate through all six classes in one year and then pick a specialty, on the theory that it could fortify their chances to build careers and to influence policy.

Pete Malinowski, the head of Billion Oyster Project explains that the curriculum grew from the applied science of reef building, striving to offer applied problem-solving in engineering and negotiation and other 21st-century skills. Oyster restoration, to Malinowski, weaves together experimentation and math, biology and group work. “The first five things [employers] say they want in a new hire are always: show up on time, be proactive, be a team player, communicate well in writing, creatively problem-solve,” he says. “I’ve found it’s very difficult to teach those without an authentic project or problem to solve.”

For Murray Fisher, the school’s founder, the Billion Oyster Project’s devotion to marine skills made it a compelling partner for the Harbor School. It amounts to learning the shape and shifts of the seafloor, navigating ships to drop cages of shells, watching what happens to those shells and designing new ways to support the habitat.

Fisher now believes students can do more than strengthen the harbor’s ecosystem–they can also strengthen the laws that govern the harbor. Fisher is working with John Cronin, an activist who pushed many of the cleanup and protection laws that restored the Hudson River in the 1970s and 1980s. Cronin, who now teaches a class in policy writing to undergraduates at Pace University, is working with the Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project are working on a plan through which Cronin’s college students would embed on Governors Island during their class. They would mentor Harbor School students–and together, all the young people would write policy proposals.


The threat looming over all this work is climate change, which could devastate New York’s coastline and shift budgets to emergency repairs rather than long-term habitat restoration. Fisher worries that his mission to train kids for careers protecting the aquatic ecosystem can only go so far with limited resources. And all sorts of disturbances can upend kids as they go through college and into the workforce.

For now, Cronin counters that the students’ confidence can spread through partnerships, and through the Billion Oyster Project, to many other places. He talks about using future grant money to create a “virtual town hall” of waterfront activists. He says students he met at graduation, talk convincingly about having gained a devotion to the harbor. If he’s right, the technical waterfront skills kids learn on Governors Island can help them navigate the much stormier course of working and commuting and paying taxes in a stressed climate.

Correction: Students at the Harbor School pick a specialty in after they rotate through all their classes in the first year.

[Photos: New York Harbor School]