At the Maritime Academy of Toledo, students learn basics like math and English. They also take classes on boatbuilding.
On a fall day in the boat lab, a few students are working on the inside of a small wooden boat. They’re gluing pieces of wood together along the inside of the boat before sanding it down.
“This boat’s going to be a tug boat, and hopefully we’re going to finish it by this spring,” says Rick Brown, who runs the career tech program, which includes navigation, engineering, hospitality, and environmental science. “Then we auction those off, raise more money to buy more wood so we can make more boats.”
The Toledo public charter school is one of 56 schools nationwide that incorporate maritime or marine themes. Maritime focuses on the operation, repair, and maintenance of ships and boats, and a marine theme means oceanography and biology.
The students participate in a daily ritual similar to the U.S. Navy Colors Ceremony, where the whole school gathers in front of the American flag.
The theme extends throughout the school, says principal Aaron Lusk.
“The cafeteria’s a galley, the front desk is a helm,” explains Lusk. “The building is shaped like a ship, its considered a training ship and dry dock.”
The founders opened the school in 2006 with the idea of letting inner city kids experience Lake Erie.
Freshman Maricella Morales took her first trip on the water when she arrived at the school this year. Now she’s thinking about going into the Navy.
“I’ve never learned anything about boats. I just went to regular schools,” says Morales. “It’s cool though to learn about something different than just what every school is teaching about.”
The Toledo school runs from fifth grade through high school, and graduates go to the military, college or straight into a job. Others work on ships, or go on to higher education at a maritime college.
The hands-on learning in classes like boat building can be used in traditional classes too, says Dr. Art Sulzer. He’s on the board of Philadelphia’s Maritime Academy Charter High School and the Maritime for Primary and Secondary Education Coalition, a group that aims to bring maritime education to the masses.
“If you want to teach physics, you can of course teach physics on a blackboard or a smartboard with vectors,” Sulzer says. “Or you can teach them knots.”
Sulzer says the number of maritime schools is growing around the country. But there are only two others in the Great Lakes region: in Buffalo, N.Y., and Erie, Penn.
There may be more in the future. “There’s a new school talking about opening in Cleveland, and we’re starting to get feelers from other ports around the Great Lakes,” says Sulzer.
But students at the Toledo school still struggle academically. The school lags behind the Toledo Public Schools standard in graduation rates, according to state data released in September.
Principal Lusk plans to boost the school's academic performance, and to expand it from 283 students to 400.
He’d also like to see more students working in the industry after graduation.
Last summer, several students worked aboard the US Brig Niagara during the Tall Ships Festival. Next summer, students will get a taste of ship living on the USS Aries, an old Navy vessel that will sail the Ohio River.
Back in the boat lab, students are busy honing skills that can help them get those jobs. It’s an important part of their schooling.
"The boats are sometimes a little lumpy. They’re hardly professional, but that’s not the point,” says Dave Brown, who mentors students in the lab.
“The point is, it’s something they’ve accomplished that’s real, hard, and 3-dimensional. It’s quite a difference from ‘Oh, I passed the test … I built it.’”