Building Boats, Building Bridges

From left, standing: Students Dylan Breault, Chris Burg (homeschooler), Dylan McNeil and Jake Simonds with instructor Patrick Connor kneeling.

Every parent or teacher will tell you – busy is better.

With all the bad news of the last few years surrounding high school students, Stonington (CT) High School special education teacher Deidre Toole was thinking that while there are lots of sports teams, drama, and music programs after school for students, there weren’t a lot of options for the kids who don’t play, sing, or act. She felt there was a need for after-school activities that would appeal to those students who felt there was nothing interesting for them.

She turned to Sarah Cahill, director of Museum Education and outreach at Mystic Seaport Museum, with whom she has worked in the past in the high school’s Community Classroom. The Community Classroom provides work/life experience for special education students as part of their high school curriculum. Mystic Seaport Museum has paired Community Classroom students with staff interpreters for several years.

“Our relationship with the Seaport is so strong, and Sarah is so great, so when I told her that I wanted to create something for kids who need something to do to get involved with after school, she immediately said, ‘Let’s build a boat’,” Toole said. Cahill involved Supervisor of Sailing Programs Ben Ellcome, and Patrick Connor, lead sailing instructor at the Museum’s Community Sailing Center. Together they created a program for the group from Stonington High to build a Bevin skiff.

“We were just developing our youth development boat building program, so a pilot program was born!” Cahill said.

Every Tuesday during this school year, a bus would drop off the boys who volunteered to participate in the program at the Museum, and they would work with Connor on building the boat. It involved far more than carpentry, however, as they had to understand the plans, materials, and the construction methods. They will launch their finished skiff in a ceremony at the Museum on May 7.

Toole noted that it was coincidental that the program ended up with all boys, there were a couple of girls also interested but they ultimately did not enroll because of other issues. The program has been a resounding success, she said.

“This has done extraordinary things for these boys,” she said. “Some of them have never had anything in an after school program that interested them. Here, they have been totally immersed. When the bus drops them off, they run, run to the sailing center. I am overwhelmed by how much the Seaport has taught them, and taught me.”

Stonington High freshman Caleb Melzer said the program turned out “better than I expected. I’m a pretty shy kid, so the small group was good for me,” he said.

Sophomore Jake Simonds had two legs up on the rest of the group when the program started, as his father is both a carpenter and an oyster fisherman. Jake and a couple friends had even tried building a boat on their own a while back, “but it sank as we all heard the Titanic music playing in our heads,” he said. “This is better. It’s way more planned. There’s more people, and better materials. It’s fun being able to work with others on a big project.”

Senior Dylan McNeil was quite familiar with the Museum before this program started, as he has been learning in the shipsmith’s shop for a couple of years through the high school’s Community Classroom program. He wanted to join the boat building group as a way to expand on the skills he has already learned here.

“I really like using my hands to build something,” he said. “And I’ve learned a lot about building that I didn’t know before, like using the planer and the chisel. I’ve learned to respect the old-style tools, the hand tools, and how they used to do things.”

Cahill said that based on the success of this year’s boat building, “we are expanding next year to provide a boat-building and maritime heritage apprenticeship for eight to 10 high school students in Stonington High School’s new Alternative Education Program. They will be with us for a couple of hours three days a week through the entire academic year. They will learn life and career skills, leadership, boat building and design, as well as historical maritime trades and sailing.”

Cahill and Toole said the program will be funded through a combination of grants provided to both the Museum and the school district.