On Saturday, June 9, students and teachers from Yorkship Family School in Camden, along with parents and other volunteers, gathered at the Camden County Boathouse on the Cooper River to launch a series of hand-built boats. After a celebratory chant of “I built a boat,” students took turns launching and paddling their own creations on the Cooper River, celebrating the launch of Yorkship’s first-ever boat.

When Sue Bowen, a teacher at Yorkship, initially decided to take her students on a trip to the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, the connection was solely historical. The Fairview (Yorkship Village) neighborhood of Camden had been a neighborhood of shipbuilders adjacent to the Camden shipyards. The connection, however, soon became more literal. During that trip, Sue discovered the Urban BoatWorks program and watched as volunteers guided students in crafting boats. “I saw the charter schools and the private schools doing it,” Sue said, “and I wondered why a public school couldn’t.”

Yorkship Family School

Taking advantage of Yorkship’s status as a community school, Sue was able to. She first learned of the Maritime Museum through the Fairview Neighbors, an organization she joined in order to further connect the school to the surrounding community. Moreover, Sue credits Yorkship’s other partners – NJEA Priority Schools, Urban BoatWorks, and the Camden City Department of Human Services (who provided transportation for the students). The Delaware Valley Fairness Project also contributed funding for students’ individual photo albums and a school album detailing the process. With their assistance, Yorkship began its own chapter in the Fall of 2017 with seven seventh- and eighth-graders working alongside volunteers to transform slabs of wood into a functional, single-person kayak.

For the seven participating students, this was a unique, tactile experience that offered them the opportunity to apply practical skills. “I thought it was interesting,” says Raul Tolentino, Grade 7, “It’s something I’ve never done, and I might grow up to be a carpenter.”

Beyond the hands-on experience, Sue cited the benefit of students shepherding a long-term project from an abstract drawing to a concrete product. ”This was something I’ve never done, but that I learned how to do.  It was (especially) fun at the end,” said Jabneel Santana, Grade 8, speaking of the satisfaction of seeing their own boat floating on the river.   Sue also noted the team-building and positive relationships with peers and adults that come from their weekly sessions. These points were affirmed by Zykia Peace, Grade 8, “I wanted to know how it felt to build a boat, and it felt good. I liked the experience.”

As the Yorkship School and Yorkship Village celebrate their 100th birthdays, Sue is already looking to expand the program for next year. Again thanks to Yorkship’s community school status, Sue was able to form a special bond with students’ families and will have boatbuilders’ siblings participating next year with even greater teacher and student involvement. In September, she intends to begin with an excursion on the Cooper River, in hand-built boats, of course.


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