Education Opinion

Term-Away Programs: A Sampler of Independent School Exotica

By Peter Gow — April 22, 2013 5 min read
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A while back I wrote about the NuVu program, which offers students a term away from their schools for the chance to be in an immersive, design-focused, studio learning environment. Who would attend such a program? How do they make it work with a regular high school program, courses and requirements and preparing for college applications?

In its short lifetime NuVu has been largely peopled by independent school students, along with a handful of students from public schools and even a few home-schoolers. Students pay tuition, although one independent school covers tuition and even daily transportation, including for students receiving financial aid at the school.

NuVu is one of the more recent arrivals in a sector that has been part of the independent school landscape for close to thirty years now, the so-called “term away” program. There are more than a dozen of these programs, generally sharing these characteristics:
1. A location that offers unique opportunities--for learning, service, or adventure
2. Semester-long enrollment in a residential (boarding) environment
3. A fairly rigorous curriculum that syncs with what the attending students are leaving behind
4. Special curriculum features that connect with the school’s location

(NuVu is an outlier on several counts: it is at present day-only, and its curriculum is holistic and not directly connected with a student’s academic program at the so-called “sending school.”)

The grandfather of semester programs is The Mountain School in Vermont, founded in the early 1980s when Milton Academy in Massachusetts purchased a former farm school to create a rural residential educational experience for students from Milton and other schools. Students do farm work along with their academic chores; environmental studies and outdoor leadership round out the program.

The Island School in the Bahamas was started by environmental educators from Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and offers students a heavy dose of environmental science and opportunities to engage in projects that support both educational and environmental development in the Bahamas.

The High Mountain Institute Semester--in Colorado, unsurprisingly--balances an academic program with a series of expeditions into the Colorado Rockies and the valleys of Utah--a pretty good example of what Theodore Roosevelt extolled as the educationally and humanly desirable “strenuous life.”

The Conserve School in Wisconsin began as a full-on boarding school with an intense environmental focus and has since become a semester program that takes full advantage of its North Woods location with programs emphasizing environmental stewardship and sustainable living.

In Washington, D.C., the School for Ethics and Global Leadership offers a program that is more cerebral than outdoors-focused programs but no less experiential. The core Ethics & Leadership course focuses on research, personal contact with political and thought leaders, and the development of analytical and communication skills around contemporary issues, with capstone projects on issue that extend back into the student’s home community even when the program has ended.

CITYTerm, based at The Masters School in New York, combines schoolwork with an intense urban studies program. Students split time between project-focused field research in New York City and academic studies on the Masters campus; the six-day-a-week interdisciplinary Urban Core course anchors the program.

Chewonki Semester School, long known as Maine Coast Semester, has been around for 25 years. The program takes advantage of an environmentally rich setting and combines intense outdoor activities with hands-on learning in sustainable living and environmental awareness.

Also in Maine is Coastal Studies for Girls, specifically for tenth-grade girls. Along with its focus on outdoor leadership and environmental studies, the program highlights its unique status as the only single-sex semester program.

The Oxbow School, in Napa, California, serves combines intensive instruction in the visual arts with “innovative academics.” The program also features visiting artists, offering students an immersive experience that gives students a chance to develop both the creative and practical sides of making art.

The Outdoor Academy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina offers wilderness trips, a Farm to Table program, and an extensive traditional crafts program, all drawing on the resources and traditions of the southern Appalachians.

Strongly based on Quaker principles, the Woolman Semester is situated in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. Environmental stewardship (the eponymous Quaker activist John Woolman was speaking out against whaling in the 1760s) and Peace Studies anchor the program; attendees need not be Friends.

All of this comes at a cost, of course, although most programs offer financial aid. Some are part of consortia of “member schools” whose students may receive admissions preference, but all are open to students from any kind of school.

Anyone who has interacted with students from any of these semester programs knows the effect they can have. For one, they promote intense bonding that leads to lifetime friendships with fellow students and staff and amazing loyalty to the programs themselves. In my experience, too, students returning from semester programs are often refocused and energized academically, socially, and politically--they may become a school’s leading environmental activists or powerful voices on other social or cultural issues.

I note, finally, that these schools are share a mission of taking kids out of their comfort zones and offering them experiences that in many instances are quite Spartan in comparison to home life. Cleaning a cow stall or digging clams for the whole group’s supper really can change a student’s perspective and create a new understanding of his or her obligations in the world--achieving a social purpose, if not exactly an explicitly public one, that often goes beyond what a student’s regular school can provide.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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