Kids christen new Jamaica Pond fleet

June 24, 2011
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Built their own boats with JP group

(Gazette Photo by David Taber) Boston Family Boat Builders director John Rowse (left) and Haley Pilot School principal Ross Wilson (right) rowing on Jamaica Pond with fifth-graders from the Haley Pilot School in Roslindale June 15. The students built four rowboats this year as part of the Boston Family Boat Builders program at the school, including Swimzilla (right). The other boat, The Eliot, was build by a previous group of students in the program.

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PONDSIDE—Swimzilla, Piranha, The Rider, The Great Ebony Blanca Shark—those are the names emblazoned on the backs of four rowboats that were christened with Poland Springs sparkling water and launched on Jamaica Pond June 15 by about 40 fifth-graders.

The students, from the Haley Pilot School in Roslindale, were finishing up their school year on that sunny day by taking trips in the four boats they built themselves.

“We used screws, drilled holes, all that stuff. We cut the pieces…It was a lot of work but it was fun,” Chaia McGruder-Jones, a Haley School student, told the Gazette. “It is awesome to go out on the water and enjoy the sun.”

The boat-building curriculum came to the school three years ago thanks to the small JP-based nonprofit Boston Family Boat Builders, run by JP resident John Rowse—known as “Captain John” to the youths.

“I taught in Boston Public Schools for six years, starting in 1999,” Rowse told the Gazette, “but I found the square-ness of the box was not my forte,” he said, referring to traditional classroom teaching.

‘         An experienced boat-builder, and a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain, “I saw an opportunity to augment what they were learning,” Rowse said. He founded Boston Family Boat Building in 2006.

“All the skills they had to employ building a boat from nothing to be on the water—it was an experience for our kids. I am really glad they had a chance to be a part of this,” Haley School teacher Monique Harris told the Gazette.

“They get to see fractions come alive,” Haley School teacher Brian Flemming said.

The 12 trips the students made to the boat shop—this year located at the school, but normally at the Charlestown Navy Yard— throughout the course of the year almost certainly improve their MCAS scores, Rowse said.

“They are learning measuring, fractions—about inches yards and miles,” he said.

In the past, program participants have experienced a “bump” in their MCAs math scores, he said: “If you look in August,” when the scores come out, “You will find the data, I am sure.”

Next year, Rowse plans to incorporate more geometry into the curriculum, he said.

And, he said, Boston Family Boat Building’s curriculum includes more than just math. In the spring, the students interview “African-American descendents of people who were in the maritime industry,” Rowse said. “That involves reading, writing and looking at primary sources.”

The students learn to plot courses, follow compasses and navigate sailboats during fall boat trips to Spectacle Island in the fall.

The goal, Rowse said, is to give the minority urban youths “experiences that most middle and upper-middle class kids get…These kids are coming from a place where they don’t have a lot of resources or an experience base. People talk about the ‘achievement gap,’ but I think it’s more of an opportunity gap.”

Rowse ran the Haley School program and a much smaller week-long summer program on a budget of about $100,000 this year he said, mostly thanks to support from philanthropic foundations.

This year, that budget was supplemented somewhat because he was hired by Boston Public Schools at an entry-level teachers salary to run the program, he said. He was laid off from that position at the end of the school year, but he said he is hopeful he will be rehired.

Regardless, he said, he is confident the program will stay afloat.

The rowboats will, as well. The four new rowboats, and a few of the eight that Haley School students built last year, will be available for rental all summer at Jamaica Pond. The students are given free passes to go rowing all summer.

Boats from past years are sold to help fund the program, at about $1,500 a piece, Rowse said.

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