The first class of the new Maritime High School is tackling hands-on challenges, and they have the blisters to prove it.
Inside a storefront at the rumbling, traffic-heavy intersection of South Park’s South Cloverdale Street and 14th Avenue South, Savanna Farnsworth and Mini Lindholm hold up their palms to show the calluses they earned the previous day from learning to row. Their assignment: Sync with six other classmates using 12-foot-long wooden oars to move a 26-foot longboat along the Duwamish River. That boat, by the way, literally weighs a ton.
“I didn’t know it would be this hands on,” Mini said of her new school.
Maritime, a public high school in the Highline School District, opened the doors to its first class, a group of 36 freshmen, on Sept. 2. Like Raisbeck Aviation, a Highline high school so popular it has a waitlist, Maritime immerses students into the industry. And it aims to break up the centuries-old boys club of the maritime business by helping women and youth of color find pathways into the field.
On this cool, overcast mid-September morning, the students are in their second day of a three-day rotation of field work in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.
Each group gets an hour of water safety instruction with Tyson Trudel, the maritime education manager for Northwest Maritime Center. Then they walk over to the South Park Marina and slide on bright red life vests. Some students hop into the vessel without hesitation, but Mara Mersai grips the closest mast for stability. As an aspiring marine biologist, Mara knows she’ll have to get used to this.
“I’m excited, but I’m, like, scared,” she says with a nervous giggle.
She, like Rowen McLean, is afraid of the boat tipping over. Rowen freezes at the edge of the dock. “This is way out of my comfort zone. I’m not ready for this,” he says.
“You can do this,” says Stephanie Burns, Maritime’s program director. “I’ll go with you.”
Rowen takes a deep breath. Trudel offers a hand aboard. “One, two, three,” Burns counts, followed by a “woo-hoo” as Rowen’s foot safely lands inside.
Nearby on dry land, another crew of students tours the neighborhood by foot. Twenty-year South Park resident Magdalena “Maggie” Angel-Cano asks students to identify “assets and challenges” of the neighborhood. Clipboards in hand, they note jewel-colored Mexican murals on the sides of buildings, and people lined up outside a health clinic offering services in English and Spanish. They also point out piles of trash, rotting fruit fallen from overgrown trees and the lack of a full-service grocery store.
Angel-Cano represents the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, an environmental advocacy and federally recognized educational and advisory group working on the safe removal of toxins and pollutants from the river. She wants students to meet residents and see what life is like throughout the Duwamish Valley. She also wants them to understand why environmental justice, like cleaning up the river and the land, is so important to helping the area thrive.
“You can’t love a community if you don’t know a community,” she said.
Charting a new course
Maritime High School was founded to educate and raise the aspirations of students from all backgrounds wanting maritime careers, to help address the “silver tsunami” of mariners, marine scientists, engineers and laborers retiring from the workforce.
At the helm: Highline Public Schools, Northwest Maritime Center, Port of Seattle and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.
Highline is charting a course for Maritime High to be as successful as Aviation. Maritime is modeled after The New York Harbor School and uses the immersive learning and internships approach of Highline’s Big Picture School. It is funded through the district’s partnerships and grants.
Maritime Principal Tremain Holloway is making rounds on the maritime industry circuit, looking for businesses and individuals willing to invest their time, talents and/or funding. That means developing a diverse group of industry mentors and securing paid internships for his students, and paving the way to expand staff and grade levels into a permanent space. He hopes paid internships, work and career opportunities will help close persistent racial and gender pay gaps.
Holloway has a standout background as a Black, Harvard-educated school administrator who previously served as principal at Highline High and assistant principal at Aviation. He said he’s vested in helping the maritime workplaces become more inclusive.
“When you think about the maritime industry in terms of diversity, I think it is diverse when it comes to the opportunities and the different outlets and industries that are within it, but in terms of the workforce, it is not,” said Holloway. “We need to be the change that we want to see within the industry in terms of diversity.”
Maritime High currently shares an interim campus with the Highline Virtual Academy in Des Moines. The next steps for the school’s leadership team involve finding a site, preferably in South Park, to construct the school’s permanent home.
Raisbeck Aviation, once housed in a run-down middle school building, now serves just over 400 students on its state-of-the-art Museum of Flight Campus, adjacent to Boeing Field in Tukwila. Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield said Maritime’s goal is to enroll up to 100 students per grade level.
Freshman Nicholas Robertson was waitlisted for Aviation, wondering where to go next, when he found out about Maritime. Nick said he’s drawn to the smaller class sizes and hand-on learning offered by the two schools.
Unlike Aviation, Maritime won’t give letter grades; it is using a mastery-based learning transcript. Students set their own goals and show what they’ve learned through projects and completing tasks. Maritime offers longer class periods focused on STEM and humanities, as well as skills-building experiences in the school’s aquaponics lab and technical shop. Students spend two to three days a week in the field, one to two days doing group work in classrooms and Fridays learning remotely on their own. Next up: The students will be learning to crew for the Admiral Jack, a twin-hulled, 49-passenger foot ferry.
“I feel like project-based learning is more engaging to students. It’s more fun than being in a classroom and just writing stuff down,” Robertson said. “But when you’re actually in the field and engaging with the environment and your ecosystem and your community, I feel like it’s more effective.”
Addressing a workforce need
Enfield says recruitment is the easy part of starting a new school. The long-term challenge will be keeping youth in school and helping them transition into maritime colleges or careers.
The partners are cognizant of a retirement cliff in a wide range of maritime fields, including water transportation and commercial fishing. The average age of a maritime worker in Washington state is 54 years old. Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins says the region’s workforce will face a shortage of 150,000 mariners by 2025.
Maritime High is not alone in its efforts to address this. Port of Seattle has an Opportunity Youth Initiative to train and pay interns, youth mentors and young adult summer workers. It also partners with Youth Maritime Collaborative. Ballard Maritime Academy at Ballard High School introduces students to maritime history, skills and oceanography. Everett Community College’s dual credit program, Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA), has prepared high schoolers for marine biology careers for more than two decades. The University of Washington has a School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. There are dozens of apprenticeship programs statewide to train new deckhands, licensed mates, marine welders and other maritime trades workers, as well as the region’s naval military opportunities.
What is unique about Maritime High is its approach to breaking down gender and cultural barriers by recruiting students to learn and practice in one of Seattle’s more diverse neighborhoods.
Disrupting an old boys club
According to industry estimates, less than 3% of maritime jobs are held by women and people of color. Port of Seattle’s 2021-23 workforce development plan found that white people make up 78% of the maritime workforce in Seattle-King County, and men 74%. But more than 70% of students living in neighborhoods closest to the region’s maritime hubs are students of color.
South Park is home to a large Hispanic or Latino population, about 46% of residents, according to city data. More than 30% of people there are under the age of 18, and 28% of all residents live below the poverty level.
Many maritime jobs offer median wages ranging from $17.12 (laborers) to $40.41 (captains and mates) per hour with some postsecondary training but less than a four-year degree, according to Seattle economic development data.
Maritime High is open to students from any district, but its lottery-based admissions system reserves 51% of its seats for students living within the Highline district’s neighborhood boundaries. The school currently has students from across Washington: Auburn, Burien, Kent and Federal Way to Olympia, Mukilteo, Port Orchard and Bellevue, among other communities.
For Maritime student Emy Kissick, the long commute from Olympia is part of her pursuit of the life aquatic. Her fascination with all things marine began around age 2, with a pet fish. Growing up by a waterfront stoked her interest in boats, from building to sailing them. She sails competitively at home in Olympia. In the future, she says she could see herself as the captain of her own ship.
“I love that Maritime is empowering minorities and women in this trade,” she said, “ … and that we get these opportunities to do things that would normally be like old, white men things.”
Northwest Maritime Center Executive Director Jake Beattie said connecting students to maritime workers and leaders who reflect community demographics is the best way to help address racial inequities and recruit the next generation of maritime workers.
“It could be a real game changer for students, the community [the school] serves and the maritime industry,” he said.
After their lunch break in South Park, Mini, Savanna and their group resume the afternoon at the bottom of a terraced hillside blanketed by wood chips behind a neighboring Boeing plant. It’s low tide, and they’re on part of a federal Superfund contaminant cleanup site near the Duwamish River People’s Park. They shuffle over the wet sand and coir netting with George Blomberg, one of the Port’s senior environmental managers, planting native salt grass and tufted hair grass to help restore an eroded habitat. Occasionally a student looks up in time to spot a spawning coho salmon leap from the gently flowing river.
Savanna said she didn’t know they would be spending so much time helping out in the Duwamish Valley community and learning about the region.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to the Seattle Aquarium every week,’” Savanna said. “But I’m really happy with how it turned out because we’re actually helping the community while going to school at the same time.”
The two young women applied to Maritime High with marine biology in mind, inspired by the pathway of their STEM teacher, Joanna Rodriguez, who encouraged them to apply. But they quickly learned the term “maritime” connects to more than sea creatures and waterways. It includes people, vessels, landscapes, companies and then some. It also includes them.
“You go to Maritime High School. You’re now part of the community along the Duwamish River,” humanities teacher Mia Mlekarov recently told one of her class sections. “We’re stakeholders now.”
Correction: Tyson Trudel is the maritime education manager for Northwest Maritime Center who works with students at Maritime High School. He is not a teacher for Highline Public Schools.