by Tracy Tullis

Parent leaders are accustomed to going out into community to ask for support for their school: they seek donations from local businesses for a school auction, or maybe they’ll ask a local restaurant to provide food for a school event. A few years ago, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, had a really big ask: they wanted a whole new building. They knew it would take a lot of dedication, a lot of planning, and a lot of skill-building to make it happen.

The Harbor School was founded in 2003 for grades 9-12 with a curriculum focused on marine and environmental education and technical training for maritime careers. Students choose one of seven concentrations, including marine biology, marine policy and advocacy, ocean engineering, vessel operations, and aquaculture. It’s a small program, serving 550 students, 66 percent of whom are students of color.

The Harbor School’s first home was in landlocked Bushwick, but in 2010 it moved to Governor’s Island, taking up residence in a converted army barracks. It was the first institution located fulltime on the Island since 1995, when the Coast Guard closed its base there.

Although students attended classes within a stone’s throw of the water, the school had no pool, so those who wanted to earn a diving certification (essential for several maritime career paths) had to pack up heavy diving equipment and travel back to the pool at their old Bushwick High School campus—an ordeal that consumed an entire school day. The school had also hoped to teach every student to swim—a safety measure for kids who traveled to school by ferry, let alone those who wanted to learn to pilot a boat or conduct research on the water—but the long commute made that goal impractical.

In 2018 the Trust for Governor’s Island, the nonprofit corporation which oversees the island and its properties, agreed to give the Harbor School an old Coast Guard officers’ quarters and some adjoining land for the pool and a gym. But the plan stalled when it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough space.

Nan Richardson, a new parent at the school and a member of the PTA, made it her mission to secure a new building for the school. This time the Harbor School set its sights on a 19th century military hospital designed by the iconic architecture team McKim, Mead and White. It wasn’t money that the school needed. What they needed was clout.

So Richardson launched a campaign to get the attention of elected officials who could help. She created a School Expansion Advocacy committee—which was known by the fitting acronym SEA—and recruited 82 parents and guardians to join. Few SEA members had engaged in political advocacy before, so they reached out to parent leaders who knew the ropes (to use another nautical metaphor). Lissa Wolfe brought her knowledge of waterfront organizations and local elected officials in Brooklyn to bear. Lisa Edstrom, a past PTA president at PS 8, provided a template for preparing talking points (a template that had been passed down to her from another parent leader at another school) and tips on conducting meetings with elected officials (keep it short!).

Theresa Jordan, a Harbor School grandmother and an activist going back to the 1960s, offered counsel, and much-needed courage. “The idea that you could hope to talk to your elected officials was a new one for many on our committee,” Richardson recalls. So when some PTA members seemed nervous about joining the fray, Jordan pointed out that government representatives genuinely want and need to hear from their constituents. “Let's all remember these officials are elected by us,” Jordan urged. “They work for the people.”

So in groups of three or four, talking points in hand, the SEA committee members trooped to the Tweed Courthouse, to City Hall, and to local district offices, to make their case to anyone they thought might listen.

They met with three Chancellors over four years. They met with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, and City Council Member Margaret Chin, winning allies in Washington and Albany and at City Hall. Gale Brewer, as well as Chin and Kavanagh (whose districts include Governor’s Island), were early and enthusiastic supporters, and they and their staffs provided advice on working the levers of power. Chin and Brewer also committed capital funds to the project.

Finally, in April 2021 the Trust for Governor’s Island and the School Construction Authority agreed to renovate the old military hospital for the Harbor School. The building will provide 60,000 square feet of growing room, including 18 classrooms, a gym, a library—and the much-coveted pool.

The Harbor School can’t boast of a particularly affluent or well-connected parent body. What the school does have, Richardson says, is “a lot of parents who were very generous with their time.” And that was crucial to the success of the SEA campaign.

Here are the Harbor School’s tips and strategies for winning political leaders to your side:

• Seek out parents at your school and others who have experience in political advocacy, lobbying, or government service. If your parent body doesn’t have that expertise, cast the net a little wider—parent leaders at other schools may be able to share their wisdom.

• Create a list of elected officials whose support you’d like to get. Start with the state and city officials who represent the school’s electoral district, but parents can also contact those who represent the district where they live.

• Write a template for letters to ask for meetings and for thank-you notes to send after meetings.