Mara Mersai stepped into her freshman year last September by cautiously boarding a 26-foot longboat on the Duwamish River, clinging to its mast for stability.  

Fast-forward to June, and it’s safe to say that she and most of her 35 classmates found their sea legs during the founding year of Maritime High School. 

“I want to keep going out on the water,” Mersai said, standing on the shores of Seahurst Park as she was about to help her classmates launch their hand-built canoe. 

Working against the socially distant tides of a pandemic-strapped economy, this public school in South King County was propelled by a sense of urgency: to address the homogenous makeup of a regional maritime workforce on the brink of a “silver tsunami” of retirement turnover. 

The district leaned on its track record of establishing innovative, industry-focused schools, like Raisbeck Aviation High and Highline Big Picture, said outgoing Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield. Still, “planning a new school in the midst of a pandemic presents its own unique scenario,” she said.

So too does the work of recruiting more women, nonbinary people and nonwhite workers to a field where few have been invited before.

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“It really revolved around the power and necessity of partnerships and the complexities partnerships bring,” said Enfield. Highline launched the new high school with leadership from the Port of Seattle, Northwest Maritime Center, and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. 

Mersai joined the inaugural class because she has an interest in marine biology. The school is project-based and mastery-based, and students direct their own learning plan. After field trips to places like Manson Construction Co., visits from local maritime experts, and months of hands-on-deck work aboard a variety of water vessels, Mersai has developed a growing interest in marine construction. 

This past month she and her classmates teamed up in the school’s Des Moines-based workshop to construct four 18-foot Chesapeake Light Craft “Peace Canoes,” all fitted, sanded and painted by hand. 

“We literally had to bear-hug the hull” to get the parts in place, said Mersai’s classmate, Henry Peters. 

Alas, on the scheduled canoe launch date in early June, winds created waves too choppy to paddle through. Still, the students and their teachers donned their orange life vests and tall, brown rubber sailing boots. One by one they lifted their canoes and shuffled over the sandy shores of Burien’s Seahurst Park to give them a christening in the saltwater of Puget Sound. This fledgling fleet will be expanded by the next freshman class, and serve students and community members for years to come. 

Tyson Trudel, the Northwest Maritime Center education manager who oversees most of the water vessel activities for Maritime High, got misty-eyed with pride when he spoke of a year’s worth of student growth and the gains of colleagues, too. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. “But we figured it out together,” Trudel said. 

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For the upcoming school year, Maritime High aims to enroll another 51 students. The sophomore class will be capped at 45 seats, with future classes capped at 100. While the school roster includes students from as far away as Port Orchard, its lottery-based admissions system reserves 51% of its seats for students living within the Highline district’s neighborhoods, with the aim of keeping enrollment diverse. (Hispanic students make up the district’s largest racial demographic.)

Some students, like Rowen McLean, are still on the fence about coming back. McLean said he learned a lot about himself. He became a watch leader aboard the Admiral Jack, a twin-hulled, 49-passenger foot ferry and floating classroom for the school. “I now have more interest in leadership roles,” said McLean. 

He just isn’t keen about being on the water. 

Other students, like Kaylie Gran, say they’re definitely returning. Gran said she used to be shy and refrained from advocating for herself. Because the school doesn’t use grades to measure student achievement and places an emphasis on having students direct their own learning, Gran decided to try CAD, computer-aided design, work despite not being a math or computer person. “I became more confident in the work that I do. I’m proud of the work that I do,” Gran said. 

Back in May, freshmen Danika Brown, Ryan Bonsack, Haven Loh, Ethan Ma, Henry Goldstein and Nobu Anderson helped give U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, a tour of the school’s classrooms, which are temporarily based at Highline’s Des Moines campus. Smith recently helped secure $1,050,000 in a federal appropriations package to bolster the school’s growth. 

The congressman examined a student-made marine ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and peered into pools of tiny tilapia being raised in the school’s aquaponics lab. Then he spoke about the need to train students to help protect and preserve the waterways in and around Puget Sound and keep the local maritime industry afloat. 

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“Most schools don’t have a marine biology class,” Smith said. “I think what this school gets people interested in is real-world problem-solving. When a problem needs to be solved and you give [people] the tools to take a crack at it, that’s what sparks human imagination.” 

For its administrators, growing Maritime High School may be one of the biggest real-world challenges of their careers. 

Maritime High Principal Tremain Edge Holloway is a former math teacher and assistant principal of another of Highline’s industry-focused choice schools, Raisbeck Aviation High. He said his current role gives him the challenge of “tapping into the entrepreneurship muscle by creating a brand-new school from the ground up” and is teaching him “how to be a community leader, not just a school building leader.” He works with more than 260 “community collaborators,” from donors to industry workers who will be providing one-on-one mentorship to sophomores next year. 

Challenges ahead for the district include recruiting students as school enrollment dips statewide; fewer students are on public schools’ rosters than there were pre-pandemic. The Maritime High partners and advisory board will also consider launching a capital campaign for a brick-and-mortar building and securing the equipment, materials and staff needed to teach a growing student body. 

But Enfield said the partners have committed to staying the course. 

“I think it gave people something positive to focus their energies on, investing in something that was future-focused,” she said, noting that the Northwest Maritime Center, Port of Seattle and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition “stepped up in a way … we just couldn’t do on our own.”