10 Semester Schools That High School Students Should Consider

There are many alternative schools that people know about on the North Shore, but have you ever heard of a semester school?

Semester schools are accredited boarding schools for high school and gap-year students looking to dive deep into specialized curriculums for one semester. With a price tag about equal to half a year’s tuition at an independent boarding school, they are academically rigorous and provide ample opportunity for students to flourish in and outside the classroom. Kids who attend will gather in-depth knowledge of the specialty of the school they are attending, as well as community skills acquired by living with a small group of people, particularly in dorms. They aim to cultivate independence, active participation and creative thought.

Offering specialized courses such as intensive fine-art training or hands-on marine biology, semester schools are heavily academic and teach advanced junior-year schedules. Many schools also offer classes like math and foreign language to keep students on track with their sending school’s requirements. All credits acquired at the semester school will easily transfer back to students’ sending school. AP, SAT and ACT tests are also often available, so no student will fall behind.

“Partaking in both traditional and non-traditional education experiences made me a better, more independent student,” says Natalie Serrino, both a New Trier and CITYterm alumna. “A semester school is a great decision for students who are pretty independent and want to explore different approaches to learning.”

Semester schools are a unique experience that can be enjoyed by students of all personality types and from all types of schooling environments. The one common theme among the students that attend and enjoy semester schools is that they are academically curious and willing to invest themselves in the experience they are embarking on.

Check out these popular semester schools to see if they might be right for your child:

For the scientist or environmentalist…

Chewonki School
Wiscasset, Maine

The Chewonki School for high school juniors is located on a 400-acre, saltwater peninsula where students work on an organic farm, in a woodlot or on maintenance and construction projects. Students explore the natural world through rigorous courses on topics such as natural science and environmental issues. Students who attend Chewonki work hard physically and academically and figure out firsthand what it means to contribute to the world.

For the city dweller…

Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

The CITYterm classroom is New York City. CITYterm believes that the best education is rooted in experience, and students recognize learning can happen anywhere. With a focus on interdisciplinary assignments, CITYterm’s curriculum is based on the Urban Core curriculum, which is comprised of three courses: History of New York City, Literature of New York City and Urban Environments. Utilizing this curriculum, students come to see New York City as both laboratory and text and are able to translate this back to their hometowns in order to actively give back to their communities.

For the conservationalist…

Conserve School
Land O’ Lakes, Wis.

The Conserve School is for sophomores and juniors who love the world and want to conserve it. The aim of their program is to engage in the outdoors; study environmental history, nature literature and the science of conservation; and to explore careers related to conservation. Students ski, bike, canoe, snowshoe, and walk their way into understanding the wilderness and world that surround them.


For the outdoorsy student…

High Mountain Institute
Leadville, Colo.

The semester spent at High Mountain is one where students live, travel and study in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the canyons of southeastern Utah. With three 10-day wilderness expeditions, students have the chance to learn about the world around them while developing leadership skills. The mountains surrounding them allow academic lessons in science, history and English to come alive.

For the athlete…

The Island School
Eleuthera, Bahamas

The Island School’s goal is to develop a sense of place, model sustainability and create an intentional community. They offer coursework in ecology, scientific research, history, mathematics, art and English literature while learning through real-world applications. Students either run a half marathon or swim four miles by the end of the program. They also learn to scuba dive, go on a kayak trip and have a homestay experience with a local family.

*Only place-based coursework is offered; students do not complete foreign languages or standardized testing.

“[The Island School] was the first time where I felt supported in a community that was telling me what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do,” says Gretchen Meyer, an Island School alumna living in New York. “I learned just as much from my teachers as I did from my peers.”


For the sailor…

Discovery High School Semester at Sea
Boothbay Harbor, Maine

The ocean is your classroom at this semester school for sophomores, juniors and seniors where you sail on a 3,000-mile ocean voyage. For example, applied mathematics is learned through the navigation and physics of sailing. The program aims to develop a oneness between student, sea and sky, all while promoting the concept that the whole world is your classroom.

For the outdoorsy environmental scientist…

Outdoor Academy
Pisgah Forest, N.C.

The Outdoor Academy is a school for sophomores and select freshmen and juniors that are eager to learn more about environmental science. Offering advanced preparatory classes at the honors level, students learn in a hands-on, meaningful way on the 180-acre wooded campus and the national forests surrounding it. Students take classes such as Appalachian Craft, Environmental Seminar and Service Learning. They live simply by making their own music, crafts and food, and students do all the chores to keep the campus running. Through these tasks, students gain an understanding of personal responsibility, social justice and environmental problems.

For the artist…

The Oxbow School
Napa, Calif.

The Oxbow School features studio artmaking and interdisciplinary humanities for juniors and seniors. Oxbow offers an intensive studio experience in painting, sculpture, photography, digital media and printmaking, allowing students to grow as conceptual and technical artists as well as work alongside professional artists. These artistic skills are translated into the classroom, interweaving creative approaches to inquiry. Additionally, students will grow their own vegetables and fruit, care for the chickens that provide them eggs, and manage the Oxbow beehive.

For the future government leader…

The School for Ethics and Global Leadership
Washington, D.C.

Aiming to create hopeful, infectious and powerful change in the world, this school fosters the next generation of global leaders. It caters to juniors who reflect the racial, socioeconomic and geographic diversity of the United States. They study ethical thinking skills, leadership development and international affairs in Washington, D.C., while taking advantage of all the nation’s capital has to offer. When they leave, these students are ready to change the world.

For the girl who loves to travel…

The Traveling School
Locations vary

Open to girls in any year of high school, the Traveling School integrates itself fully into the countries, villages and families visited. They volunteer in schools, orphanages and villages during the semester, meet with the freedom fighters that helped end Apartheid, and visit Inca archaeological sites. Students take a full course load, and they can even practice Travel Journalism skills, having their photographs and articles published at the end of the semester.



Think a semester school might be right for you? I attended the Oxbow School and can honestly say it was the most amazing, transformative time in my life. I grew as an artist and made friends I’m still in contact with every day. If you have any questions or want to hear more about my experience with semester schools, feel free to contact me at CourtneyCook@comcast.net.

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