Now, I’m not saying that the inspiration for Seattle’s new Maritime High School is the 1995 movie Waterworld, in which the polar ice caps melt and cover the surface of the planet in water, dooming humanity to live on floating vessels scattered across the seas. But in the event that sea levels rise high enough to submerge all of human civilization, Maritime High School students will be well-prepared to cope.

Fortunately, they needn’t wait for an apocalypse to put their training to use. Maritime High is an innovative educational experiment that seeks to train the next generation of ocean-going professionals in occupations ranging from tugboat operation to engineering to biological sciences. It’s the product of a creative partnership between the Port of Seattle, Highline Schools, various nonprofits, and a cohort of particularly adventurous parents and scholars in search of an education that goes beyond traditional K-12 daycare.

In other words: Goodbye, grades. Hello, setting sail for the unknown.

The end of average days

What does an average day at Maritime High look like? Nothing, because there are no average days. Students spend their time engaged on projects, which start with a conversation about a wide range of learning objectives before moving on to hands-on learning.

“Kids are at the physical school site two or three days a week,” says Bernard Koontz, executive director at Highline Public Schools, which oversees the project. “They might go to an industry site, they might be somewhere on the shore, or maybe at a marina.” Instead of just reading about mollusks, for example, they might take kayaks out and observe live organisms in the water.

Areas of study fall under a handful of categories: Marine resources (e.g., fishing), vessel operations, vessel maintenance and design, and marine construction.

“Running across all those is a thread of understanding how policy impacts them,” Koontz says, “and that comes with a theme of understanding environmental justice issues related to all those areas.”

It's about mari-time we prepared for the future of the industry

The need for investment in maritime education is particularly acute, school leaders say, because much of the existing workforce is rapidly approaching retirement age. What’s more, maritime fields have disproportionately neglected to recruit women and people of color.

“Yes, it’s about maritime,” Koontz says, “but it’s also about equity and serving the community.”

Stephanie Burns is a program director at the school, and she’s spent the last few weeks helping to coordinate an intense Community Learning Showcase where students present their latest projects. Much of that work has been centered on the Duwamish River and on surrounding communities, as well as on becoming acquainted with the school’s vessel, a small ferry called Admiral Jack.

“They’re learning now about how to plan and prepare for a voyage,” Burns says, “learning navigation tools, plotting a course on a chart, and figuring out how that course aligns to latitude and longitude.”

Ah, yes: Pirate stuff! Those lessons might sound like the sort of old-fashioned skills you’d read about in Treasure Island, but Burns says it’s something that’s really foundational to any mariner. "While we have radar, when that might go out it’s really important for mariners to understand where they are and how to get where they need to be without relying on electronics," she added.

Maritime High is fairly unique in its approach, Koontz says. “There are some schools that lean toward heavy-duty project-based learning based on student interests,” he says. “There are other schools that have more of a vocational direction. What’s unique about Maritime High School is bringing those areas together.”

Plans to grow

The school is starting small, with an initial ninth grade class of 35 students. Next year, they plan to recruit 100 more students, and 100 more the year after that. The vision is for those students to graduate with as many options as possible: “We want all of our kids walking across the stage at graduation being prepared to go into a college pathway if they want,” Kootz says, but “we also want kids to have a career-ready certificate.”

It remains to be seen how colleges and employers will react to applicants whose transcripts eschew grades. Koontz says, “There’s a growing number of [post-secondary] schools that understand there’s alternatives to the traditional 24-credit program.” Maritime High is working with an organization called The Mastery Transcript to create portfolios that back up what students have learned, including course equivalencies to more traditional classes such as algebra, physics, and language arts.

“This provides a more equitable approach to how students demonstrate their learning,” Burns says.

So, is this really going to work? We should have a sense of whether Maritime High is working in five to ten years, as the current class of freshman moves out into the world. School leaders are hoping that in that time, they’ll be able to establish a permanent location (their current site is in a temporary building created to house classes during construction projects) and also to secure funding beyond their current startup benefactors. Koontz is also keen to build partnerships between the schools and the companies where the students may one day work.

“Industry partners want awesome people in their workplace,” he says, “and we want our kids to get awesome jobs.”

(Update: Maritime High is in Des Moines — the Washington one, not Iowa — just south of Seattle.)