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Consider Semester Schools for Immersive Learning

Imagine being a high school student engaged in real-world research to preserve coral reefs in the Bahamas. Or meeting weekly with nonpartisan policy experts in Washington, D.C., to develop a brief that you then present to legislators. Or fulfilling honors-level academic courses while undertaking wilderness trips in the Appalachian Mountains. These are the kinds of opportunities offered by Semester Schools.

These programs offer a semester’s worth of rigorous academics, including AP classes, embedded into curricula that translate traditional school subjects into place-based, experiential learning. Available themes range from urban studies to global leadership, from environmental science to studio art. Each school is based in a specific setting and students conduct their studies through hands-on activities that take advantage of the unique qualities of that environment.

As a board member advising schools in the Bahamas, I observed students at the Island School investigating how to make a biodiesel fuel station using corn oil from cruise ships. This was impressive research that students presented in a symposium attended by scientists and local government officials. Each Semester School has its own substantive culminating project. These experiences of being able to touch, see, and hear what they are studying ignites a passion for learning that stays with students long after they return to their core secondary schools.

Because most semester schools serve high school juniors, the time to start exploring opportunities is during sophomore year. Members of the Semester Schools Network are highly respected within the educational world. Academic deans at most schools will work with these programs to ensure that credits apply as needed. Schools often make arrangements so that families do not pay double tuition—once to the semester school and once to the sending school—for a single semester.

These programs are wonderful for day-school students who want a boarding experience. And for boarding-school students, they provide a chance to focus on a field in-depth and with a unique style of learning. Because enrollment is small and the activities require collaboration, semester schools also encourage personal responsibility and growth. Students return to sending schools refreshed and with a renewed sense of purpose as they head into senior year and the college search.

By the time students reach secondary school, the rhythms of planning for a nine-month academic year and a three-month summer are fully entrenched in family life. Thus many families do not know that these unique schools exist. At The Bertram Group, we take professional pride in keeping current on the many possibilities for tailoring an educational plan for each unique student.

Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at