Harbor School Principal Teaches Students to Love City's 'Greatest Resource'

By Julie Shapiro on October 31, 2011 7:29am 

Principal Nathan Dudley told students they were making history on Governors Island on the school's opening day in 2010.
Principal Nathan Dudley told students they were making history on Governors Island on the school's opening day in 2010.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

GOVERNORS ISLAND — In the eight years since Nathan Dudley launched the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School as its founding principal, the school has blossomed.

The Harbor School left its land-locked Bushwick building last fall and moved into a newly renovated $34 million campus on Governors Island, at the center of the waterways that the students explore both in and out of the classroom.

Dudley, 51, who studied history at Yale University and has a master's in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, pushes the students not just to learn how to care for the harbor but also to learn why it's important to restore their environment and maintain their community. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant with his wife and two daughters.  

DNAinfo sat down with Dudley recently to talk about his own high school memories and his decision to work in education.

Q: Where did you go to high school?

I went to Oak River-Park Forest High School, a big comprehensive suburban high school just west of Chicago. I graduated in 1978 and I was the valedictorian of that class of 1,050. I played football, I wrestled and I played baseball. I would've been considered a jock, I guess, although I was on the advanced track in classes, so there was some crossover there.

Q: Was there a school project you were particularly proud of?

In AP American History, we put the Sherman Antitrust Act [which regulated monopolies] on trial. The entire class went to Pullman, IL to look at the company town George Pullman had created for the workers, and how he created a kind of vertical monopoly in terms of production of these railroad cars. I was a representative of the union, so I played a kind of Eugene V. Debs-type character. We filed suit using the Sherman Antitrust Act to break the Pullman monopoly. It was a very powerful educational experience.

Q: Did you win?

The jury did eventually side with the workers in this case. That's not how history played out. In the case of the workers of Pullman, they lost.

Harbor School students learn to sail and scuba dive as part of their high school curriculum.
Harbor School students learn to sail and scuba dive as part of their high school curriculum.
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New York Harbor School

Q: Did you ever get in trouble in high school?

I had run-ins with the principal for writing two stories for the school newspaper. One was on angel dust [PCP] use among the students. I was writing about how that was being sourced. And I wrote a piece [on] kids who were betting on football — they put 10 bucks down and if they won they got back like 250. It turned out to be mob-affiliated, so we did a story about that in the paper. My sister and I were editors — we got called into the principal's office and were asked to reveal our sources, and we refused. [The principal] was not happy with the stories, I mean, with good reason. Now I'm a principal and I can see he would have been upset with the way that it made his school look.

Q: Did you have a nickname?

My little sister called me Nato Potato and it stuck. A lot of my friends from high school and college called me Nato.

Q: How did you decide to become a teacher?

I took the long road. I was a political activist for a while. I was a community organizer and worked in programs in Latin America, Brazil and Central America. Then I ended up working for ESPN when they first started broadcasting in Portuguese and Spanish, which led to covering international sports. I quit after the Atlanta Olympics because I wasn't feeling as fulfilled as I thought I might. I loved the tournaments but I wasn't feeling like I was making that much of a difference in the world. I started working at the Manhattan Village Academy and then worked at the Satellite Academy, a second-chance school in the Bronx.

Q: When Harbor School founders Richard Kahan and Murray Fisher approached you with the idea of starting a school focused on the water, what made you say yes?

I began to see what an incredible opportunity this was for students. There is no greater equalizer for a lot of kids than being on a 120-foot schooner. Most of them have never had that kind of experience. The vocabulary is all new — whether you're a special ed kid, an ESL kid, a gen ed kid, it doesn't matter. They're [learning] new skills, gaining confidence and making connections to history, writing, science and math.

Q: Is there a typical Harbor School student?

No. We draw from all five boroughs. We have students who have wanted to be marine biologists since they were five-years-old. We have students that love and will sign up for anything we do in and on the water. We have a few students on the other end of the spectrum who are like, 'What do you mean I've got to go swimming?' There is a range. We work with all of them. The challenge is making sure we're trying to reach every kid.

Ashley Charles, a senior, held the Harbor School's flag up high as she led the way to the new building in September 2010.
Ashley Charles, a senior, held the Harbor School's flag up high as she led the way to the new building in September 2010.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

Q: What is the most important thing you want students to learn before they graduate?

The one main thing would be that this harbor is their harbor and that by taking care of the greatest resource in New York City they can also take that skill back to take care of their community.

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