Hamden Navigators: 2017

Mystic Seaport has named the teachers of the Navigator Program at Hamden Middle School in Hamden, CT the recipients of the 2017 Orion Award. Those teachers are: Andrew Marzano, 8th grade science, Tara Riley, 8th grade English, Nicholas (Nick) Ugolik, 8th grade social studies, and Robert (Rob) Mandel, 8th grade math.

Named for one of the most familiar constellations — the Hunter Orion, son of the sea god Poseidon — Orion has often marked the course for many seagoing vessels. The Orion Award recognizes teachers who use the resources of Mystic Seaport to illuminate history, and create a living record that reflects America’s present and future as well as its past. This annual award recognizes stellar teachers who are inspiring to their students and to their colleagues. And, perhaps most importantly, teachers who radiate the joy of learning, as well as of teaching.

The Navigator Program serves 8th grade students at Hamden Middle School who have not thrived in a traditional classroom setting. It is a multi-disciplinary program that integrates math, science, English, social studies, woodworking, and character building to support the public school curriculum. The educational experiences that this program provides enrich students’ lives at the social, emotional and academic levels. Because the choices made by teenagers set the direction for their future, the goal of the Navigator Program is to help students gain the practical and relevant life experiences today, rather than at some indeterminate time in their future. The Navigator Program helps these struggling students to develop the hard and soft skills so that each one of them may seek opportunities for success and accomplishment in their future endeavors.

Andrew Marzano, the 8th grade science teacher and visionary behind the program, approached Mystic Seaport in 2012 about building this type of program. As a teacher at Hamden Middle School, Andrew realized that boatbuilding was an ideal way to get his summer school students to learn the math and science concepts they didn’t absorb during the school year. So in 2011, he did just that. The project went so well, they built another boat the next summer, and another the summer after that. Around the same time, Andrew and his colleague Rob Mandel began to discuss a more in-depth program for underserved eighth graders—those who had consistently low grades or high rates of absenteeism. They wanted to create an environment for these students that would channel their energy and give them a way to succeed outside of a traditional classroom setting.

The Navigator Program uses boatbuilding as the central theme because it is an effective way to teach math and science, and given Connecticut’s historic connection to the sea, it was easy to integrate boatbuilding alongside a study of maritime history and literature. Hoping to give students the tools to steer themselves through life’s sometimes stormy waters, Andrew and Rob dubbed it The Navigator Program. Andrew worked tirelessly with school Principal Dan Levy, and Superintendent Jody Goeler to get the program and budget approved.

Students participate in a variety of programming at Mystic Seaport that are designed to complement what they are doing in the classroom. This includes an overnight program while sleeping on the historic vessel Joseph Conrad, work as apprentices with our master craftsmen to complete in-depth projects, and actually sail our 61-foot schooner Brilliant together. Back at Hamden Middle School, in addition to completing their normal coursework in each subject, they also build boats right at their school.

Andrew, Tara, Rob, and Nick are all stellar educators who care deeply about each and every student. We have seen first-hand how much of themselves they pour into this program because they truly want these students to succeed. Too often students who have had a rough time of it in their lives are overlooked in school or punished. The Navigator team wanted to create another way that actually provides hands-on, fun, and meaningful learning for students that engage them and hopefully keeps their interest in school.

Andrew and his team have started to see positive results of the program. One student in the Navigator program missed only four days of school this year, compared to 100 last year. One student wrote: “I am not the same [student] as the first day of school. I feel if I [wasn’t in the Navigator program] my grades would not be as good and I would not get the extra push the Navigator teachers gave me.” Another student said “Throughout the mid-school year I have become a better person academically and in general too.” Yet another student in the program wrote: “I kind of think of the Navigator Program as a program for second chances. People were already giving up on us, except for Mr. Marzano, Mrs. Riley, Mr. Mandel, and Mr. Ugolik.”

That is precisely why it is such an honor to bestow this year’s Orion Award to the Navigator Program teachers. They have not given up on these students, and they creatively use our resources at Mystic Seaport to enhance the program.