The notion began as a summer job training program back in 1983. By the following year, it was a fulltime magnet, run out of a shop classroom at Miami Central High School, designed to expose kids from the countys poorest, riot-torn neighborhoods to career possibilities offered by waters they never saw. To these impoverished students, Community Relations Board Chairman Bob Simms told The Herald, Biscayne Bay was more mirage than reality.
The Inner-City Marine Project pulled students from Central, Northwestern, Edison and Jackson high schools, along with kids from Douglas MacArthur-North, described as a school for disruptive teenagers. Their first project was to overhaul a dilapidated 27-foot cabin cruiser.
Seventy-five students were enrolled. No one from Miami-Dade Countys finer ZIP codes was fighting to get their children into one of those slots at Central High.
Twenty eight years later and, oh my, how things have changed.
On Wednesday, parents and students concerned maybe aghast over proposed changes to the programs modern incarnation filled the school board meeting room in exasperated disunion. One side wore red. The other white. They pleaded and denounced and cajoled and debated for more than four hours in a classic confrontation: us against the elites.
Except, in the dust-up over who deserves admission to MAST Academy, combatants on either side regarded themselves as the us. Those damn people on the other side of the argument; they were the elitists.
Red shirts opposed changes to admission criteria that would allow kids from Key Biscayne to crash the academically wonderful Maritime and Science Technology Academy on Virginia Key, as the old Inner-City Marine Project was rechristened after it moved out to Virginia Key in 1989, at the edge of that Biscayne mirage.
White shirts, residents of the island village, population 12,344, have long wanted their own high school. Key Biscayne high school students are now assigned to Coral Gables High School, not exactly a ghetto school in the asphalt jungle, but a long haul 10 miles on the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway.
MAST parents and students and alumni have good reason to defend the status quo. The MAST student body, with only 550 or so students, has been consistently ranked as the top academic achievers among public schools in the county and the state, with a dazzling success record for sending grads (nearly everyone graduates) on to four-year colleges.
Kids must have a 2.5 grade point average to qualify for admission to MAST. Not such a daunting threshold. (Not like, say, New York Citys famed Stuyvesant High School, which uses a brutal entrance exam to determine admissions). Last year about 1,000 qualified kids applied for 160 slots at MAST. A lottery decides the winners. The status red shirts defended with such fervor Wednesday was rooted in pure, random luck. The vagaries of chance made this squabble all the more peculiar.
Despite the blind lottery, the schools demographics hardly reflect the overall districts ethnic breakdown, with non-Hispanic whites, just a little over eight percent of the countys overall public school population, managing to snare 25 percent of those coveted seats at MAST. Just 10 percent of the MAST enrollees are black, the kids who never see the bay, though they represent 25 percent of the districts overall student population.