Your partners in educational excellence since 1994

You are here

From the Quad

Semester Schools Offer Immersive Learning

Imagine being a high school student engaged in real-world research to determine the effect of lionfish on juvenile snappers and mangrove nurseries in the Bahamas. Or picture yourself attending a weekly meeting with nonpartisan policy experts in Washington, DC, to develop a brief to present to legislators. Or maybe fulfilling your honors-level academic course requirements while undertaking wilderness trips in the Appalachian Mountains or investigating how to make fuel from plastics and presenting the results in a symposium attended by scientists and government officials. Those are the kinds of opportunities offered by semester schools.

Semester school programs offer a semester’s worth of rigorous academics, including AP classes, embedded in curricula that translate traditional school subjects into place-based, experiential learning. The Semester Schools Network is a group of 13 schools that offer semester-long opportunities with such themes as urban studies, global leadership, environmental science, and cutting-edge innovation and design. Each school’s program 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.

Most semester schools serve high school juniors, so the time to start exploring opportunities is during sophomore year. Academic deans at most sending schools will work with the programs to ensure that credits apply as needed. Schools also 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. Although the programs may offer some need-based financial aid to families, it is limited.


Rigorous Academics and Experiential Learning

Andrew, a recent graduate of The Island School, which is located on a remote island in the Bahamas, reflected on his experience:

It was an incredible journey that shaped who I am as a young adult and exposed me to the scientific and natural world in a way that I had not experienced before. I was also involved in helping the local community, working with kids from the local settlement. The program pushed me academically, intellectually and even physically. Following the program, I was more independent; I was able to keep the college application process in perspective; and, I am prepared for greater leadership opportunities. The intensive exposure to research and marine biology has enhanced my enthusiasm to pursue this field in college.

Each semester school has its own substantive culminating project. The ability to touch, see, and hear what they are studying ignites a passion for learning that stays with students long after they return to their secondary schools and lasts into college and beyond. Sharing the benefit of her semester at NuVu creating new projects every two weeks at The Innovation School at MIT, Kate said:

I learned how to problem solve and work intensely on projects with other people. My projects have been featured at The White House Science Fair and at Boston and NY Fashion Week. I have a strong sense of how creativity fits in with the real world. I most likely would not have had these opportunities had I stayed in a traditional learning environment. Being outside of the traditional educational footprint taught me how to take control of my education. I learned to self-start my days and projects, which has made me much more organized at college. Now I am in my third year of a five-year dual degree program at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). My concentration at Brown is social entrepreneurship and my major at RISD is industrial design.


Far-Reaching Benefits

Semester schools are beneficial for day school students who want a boarding experience, and they offer boarding school students an opportunity to challenge themselves in a unique environment and focus on a field of study in-depth. Because enrollment is small and the activities require collaboration, they encourage personal responsibility and growth as students dive deeply into passions or perhaps discover new ones and they test students’ resilience academically, intellectually, socioemotionally, and sometimes physically.

The unique experiences can be helpful in the college process. Students return to sending schools refreshed and with a renewed sense of purpose as they head into senior year and the college search. E. Whitney Soule, the dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College said:

Each year, Bowdoin reviews applications from students who have experienced place-based learning semesters. While we don’t always know why a student chooses a particular semester experience away from home, we do know that the time living away from home, living in shared space with other student, learning together, serving the local community together, and relying on one another, are exceptionally meaningful because most students who experience a semester program of place-based learning choose to either write about it, or talk about it in an interview, or ask those who taught them in those experiences to write recommendations on their behalf. The reflections often focus on facing challenge, learning the balance of relying on oneself and seeking help from others, and to appreciate the present time and space. As Bowdoin is a community fundamentally built on the principles of serving the common good, kindness, and intellectual spirit, we appreciate reviewing applicant material from students who are energized from highly intense environment built on the same principles.

Having had first-hand experience with the transformative nature of these programs as a mother and an IEC, I feel strongly that they are worth considering as part of a student’s high school journey.


Holly McGlennon Treat is a principal with The Bertram Group, based in Connecticut. She specializes in advising families about independent junior and secondary boarding schools.


This column is an article that is being reprinted from Insights, the newsletter of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.