Silver Chips Online

A semester sequestered

Semester schools provide alternative

By Jenny Sholar, Managing Features Editor
February 9, 2011
Blair is many things, but wild it is not. Its wilderness is limited to the swamp behind the athletic fields and Blair Boulevard between fifth and sixth periods. So for junior Connor Siegel, spending last semester on two-square-mile campus abutting a national forest and encompassing eight different lakes was quite a change.

The first semester of this school year, Siegel attended Conserve School, one of many "semester schools" nationwide. These programs, which last for roughly four months and typically cater to high school sophomores and juniors, allow students to step out of the box of the traditional education system and learn in a different way, according to Patrick McGettigan, an admissions officer at CityTERM, a semester school near New York City. For students looking for a change of pace, semester schools supplement the typical high school education through a combination of hands-on learning and tight-knit communities.

A different kind of school

At Blair, typical units in physical education classes include sports like volleyball, football and tennis. In his P.E. class last semester, Siegel went rock climbing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and mountain biking; he learned how to build a survival shelter in the wilderness and tested lakes for water quality. These lessons tied in with Conserve's overall mission: to promote environmental stewardship.

Most semester schools' curriculams focus on hands-on learning in the school's surroundings. Conserve's wooded campus in northern Wisconsin was an ideal setting for a school founded on environmental principles. At the Ocean Classroom Foundation's (OCF) Discovery High School, basedin Maine, students follow a maritime studies program while sailing around the Caribbean and the East Coast for four months, according to education director Allyson Graham. Other programs include an arts semester at Oxbow School in California, and CityTERM, in which students study the history and culture of New York City and take frequent trips into the city.

To accommodate the requirements of students' home schools, semester schools follow an interdisciplinary approach to their education, teaching core classes with a focus on their particular theme. Siegel took a History of Wilderness Exploration class to fulfill his history requirement, and his English class read books relating to American literature and the land.

Other semester schools have different courses befitting their setting. Aboard OCF ships, for example, students take an applied maritime math course to learn how to chart courses and navigate the ship.

According to Bill Hinkley, interim head of school at Chewonki Semester School in Maine, the idea that attending a semester school is like going to summer camp for classes is a misconception: the academics of semester schools are just as rigorous as at traditional high schools. "Some students think they're getting away from school. They're not," he says. "The classes are hard, hard in a good way they're engaging."

The semester school experience doesn't run cheap. Tuition for semester schools easily approaches and often surpasses tuition for elite boarding schools and even some colleges, reaching $20,000 per semester or even more. Due to the steep price, diversity is limited for most semester schools, the majority of students come from elite private schools. Financial aid packages are generally awarded, though, opening the schools up somewhat to people of different backgrounds. OCF, for example, has a policy of making its program accessible to students who cannot afford full tuition. "If you're accepted and want to go, we'll make it happen," says Graham.

At Conserve School, the price is much lower a $200 supply fee is all students will have to pay for the near future. Thanks to an endowment from the school's founder, the school, which opened as a semester school in fall 2010, can afford full-tuition scholarships for all its students for the first few years of its operation, until 2013. According to Head of School Stefan Anderson, the low price has made the school more diverse. He estimates that about 70 percent of Conserve's students come from public schools, compared to 25 to 50 percent at other semester schools.

Beyond the classroom

No matter what schools they come from, semester school students share a desire to try something new. Admissions officers say that this is what they look for most in a prospective student: a willingness to be creative and push the boundaries. "We look for students who are willing to challenge themselves and who are open to new experiences," says Graham.

Siegel wanted something different than the typical high school experience he found at Blair. "I was really ready for a change," he says. At the recommendation of a friend, he looked into semester schools and settled on Conserve School.

And Conserve certainly offered a taste of a dramatically different lifestyle. Siegel lived in a private bedroom in the schools' dormitories and took his meals with the rest of the school, students and faculty both. Each morning after breakfast, Siegel and the other Conserve students went to morning classes, in subjects they needed to keep up with their sending school's requirements. In the afternoon were Conserve's core classes an environmental science course in applied ecology and sustainability, a literature classes called "Wilderness Voices," the History of Wilderness Exploration course, and a P.E. class that focused on outdoor skills and activities.

It's not just the subjects that are unique: the ways students learn and interact with each other at semester schools are radically different from those at traditional high schools.

A key part of the semester school education is place-based learning, meaning using the school's surroundings to experience lessons first hand.

Anderson cites as an example of Conserve's placed-based learning a five-hour canoe trip the students took. They used what they learned in their exploration class to construct their own dugout canoe. The English teacher then led a trip in their canoes through the nearby lakes, stopping now and then for brief mini lessons relating to the ecology of the area.

Place-based learning plays a big role at High Mountain Institute, located in the Colorado Rockies. The books in the English curriculum take place in the canyons surrounding the campus, according to admissions associate Eliza Parsons. During the course of the semester, students go on three different expeditions, backpacking through the backcountry. Because they're living what they're learning, students can clearly see the importance and relevance of their lessons, says Parsons.

Siegel says that being able to learn in his own way and get his own understanding meant he was able to appreciate the significance of his classes because they were applicable to his life on campus. "You're learning about things that are completely relevant to you," he explains.

Even though the location of OCF's school is constantly changing, as the ship makes its way through the Caribbean, learning is still very much place-based. Students immerse themselves in the cultures of the islands, familiarizing themselves with the music, literature, food and customs of the islands where the ship makes port.

According to Graham, immersing themselves in such an in-depth way helps students understand the value of their experiences. "It's extremely hands-on," she says. "It's relevant to life." She cites more self-confidence, an understanding of different cultural habits and group working skills as the benefits of OCF's program.

'Be who you are'

Perhaps as a result of immersing themselves so deeply, semester students form tight bonds with their classmates. In the 16 weeks Siegel spent at Conserve school, he went from not knowing a single one of his classmates to considering them among his closest friends. Living and studying together helped the students form these strong bonds. "Since you're around each other all the time, you know each other so well," Siegel says. "You have similar passions, so you connect well."

Community learning is a key aspect of the semester school experience. A small group of students normally between 22 and 40 allows to students to form tight friendships with their peers. Hinkley explains that at big, traditional high schools, it's often easier for students' mean or cliquey behavior to go unnoticed by their peers. By contrast, at semester schools, students can't hide from each other. "It creates a genuineness of interactions," Hinkley says.

Parsons agrees that the small size helps students grow closer. With such small classes, it is easy for each student to get to know every other student. "No one is 'untouchable' you can talk with anybody," she says. "It allows you to be who you are."

Having such close relationships with each other enables students to work effectively together, explains McGettigan. Group projects are a big part of life at CityTERM. "Not a day goes by without group work," he says, "whether it's in a group of two or a group of 16." Living and learning so closely together means that students can communicate honestly with each other when it comes time to work, he says.

Outside the books

Beyond forming strong, long-lasting friendships, students of semester schools learn what cannot be taught in the standard high school classroom. In experiencing something new, students develop new values and learn life lessons. Siegel says that he grew to truly appreciate the environment during his time at Conserve. "[I learned] how much I enjoy being out in nature," he says. "It's where I want to spend most of my time."

Hinkley says that fostering this connection with the land is crucial to Chewonki's program. By living so closely with nature, students become more aware of the impact of their lives on the environment. From their experiences at Chewonki, students learn responsibility, environmental consciousness and independence, Hinkley explains.

Likewise, at Conserve School, the way students live forces them to appreciate their connections to the environment. For instance, students help grow food on the school's organic farm. By seeing the way their food is grown, students see how their lives are connected to the land and thus to appreciate it.

Siegel found that living harmoniously with the environment was fulfilling. "Being around nature makes you learn about yourself and about the influence of the wild," he says.

That influence may hold sway over what Siegel wants to achieve in his life. Siegel says his experience at Conserve expanded his dreams for the future. "It opened my eyes. There are so many more possibilities the future holds," he says. "Here, day to day life is so narrow. Now I know there's so much more, so much to life."

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