‘It’s really different’: In the field with Maritime High School students

Fast facts:

  • Maritime High School (MHS) is a collaborative project of Highline Public Schools, Northwest Maritime Center, Port of Seattle, and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.
  • The current campus is in Des Moines and the project partners are working on a permanent location, preferably on the water and possibly in the Duwamish Valley area.
  • The inaugural class is 35 students and the plan is to enroll 100 9th graders next year. Target school size is 400 students by 2025.
  • Weekly schedule: Monday and Tuesday are primarily spent in the classroom and labs. Wednesday and Thursday are field excursions. Fridays are remote learning.
  • The curriculum’s core focus areas are: marine construction; vessel operations, design & maintenance; and marine resources and research.

On a gray, but not stormy, October afternoon, members of Maritime High School’s freshman class headed out for a field experience on Admiral Jack, a 40’ catamaran managed by MHS partner Northwest Maritime Center. The Port Townsend-based nonprofit retrofitted the passenger vessel to use for educational programs and tours in the summer.

Divided into groups of 3 students, each group took a station on the boat. The stations included driving the Admiral Jack, creating a course for the following week and the remaining crew managed deckhand tasks while the boat was underway.

Over the course of the afternoon, the groups rotated through each station. Among the students were Giselle Esparza and Mara Mersai. Esparza enjoyed driving the boat the best and seeing how it responded to the steering wheel.

Previous field experiences include rowing a long boat on the Duwamish Waterway and transplanted vegetation to restore an eroded shoreline habitat. The Seattle Times tagged along on those outings.

Photos: Washington State’s new maritime high school

When asked how the first month of Maritime High School compared to their expectations, Esparza and Mersai hadn’t quite known what to expect but spoke positively of their experience thus far.

“It’s been better than I thought,” said Esparza. “I personally didn’t think I was going to like it but I actually enjoy being on the boat and doing stuff in maritime.”

“It’s really different,” added Mersai. “It’s not like your usual way of doing school. They do more things outside than inside.”

If they were to start their maritime career tomorrow, Mersai would work onboard a boat. She is also passionate about marine biology and enjoys the aquaponics lab. Esparza said she would join a sailing crew.

Neither had ever been on the water before starting at Maritime High School.

Esparza recently moved to Burien, Wash. from Arizona. She learned about Maritime High School through her aunt who works for the Port of Seattle.

At her previous school, students received assignments in a more traditional manner, and they didn’t always complete those assignments. In the field, MHS students are constantly participating.

A boat with two hulls is at the dock, inside the cabin students are seated wearing lifejackets
Northwest Maritime Center, one of the partners behind Maritime High School, retrofitted the Admiral Jack for use as a floating classroom.

MHS is a project-based learning school, one of five career-oriented schools in the Highline School District. Each student has their own learning plan and in lieu of traditional grades, they document their learning during and after projects culminating in a mastery transcript.

While it is industry-oriented, MHS is not a career and technical education (CTE) school. In addition to maritime studies, the program aims to develop students’ communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills. The curriculum also weaves in law, environmental justice and sustainability.

“We’re trying to break down the binary that says you have high schools that send students to a four year college or you have high schools that send students into the trades,” said Stephanie Burns, Maritime High School Program Director.

Since the school year started, the students who come from as far away as Olympia and as close as Des Moines have bonded through their projects and field excursions.

Back on Admiral Jack, the students ended the day with three “hip hip hoorays” led by an instructor. They each grabbed their dry bags filled with learning supplies and outdoor gear then disembarked the boat.

Walking down the dock one student exclaimed, “I love being on the water!”

A classmate responded: “Same!”

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