A semester school is a school that complements a student's secondary education by providing them with the opportunity to step out of their regular school for half an academic year and step into a uniquely different educational setting while continuing their required academic studies. The academic curriculum at semester schools tends to be college preparatory, interdisciplinary, and experiential.
- Semester school curricula are built around themes including environmental sustainability, marine ecology, organic farming, ethics and leadership, visual arts, and others. The curricula tend to be place-based drawing on the resources and opportunities of each school's unique location.
- Semester schools are boarding schools. Community living is a key element of the experience. Through living closely with peers and teachers and working together to benefit the school community students develop their communication, leadership, and cooperative skills.
- Semester schools enroll college bound sophomores, juniors, and or seniors. Most semester schools focus primarily on students from just one grade level.
- Semester school programs run from 14 to 18 weeks.
- Semester schools tend to be small, enrolling from 15 to 60 students a semester with average class sizes ranging from 5 to 15 students.
- Semester schools are private schools that charge tuition and offer financial aid. Depending on the school and a student’s family situation the cost can range from no cost to several thousands of dollars.
- Most semester schools are located in the United States.
Attending a semester school can:
- Intensify a student’s interest in and motivation for learning.
- Allow a student to pursue a special area of interest in depth.
- Complement a student's education with experiences that aren't available at their home school.
- Broaden a student’s range of skills and interests and increase their maturity level.
- Give students a head start on developing the independence, good judgment, and life skills necessary for living away from home before they leave for college.
- Provide students with a unique, eye-catching experience that sets them apart from other applicants when applying to colleges.
- Provide students from public schools a boarding school experience without the cost or time commitment of a four-year school.
The first semester school was Milton Academy's Mountain School which opened in 1984 in Vershire, Vermont. Since then more than a dozen additional semester schools have opened across the United States of America and in other countries. The list of opening dates below shows the growth in semester schools over time and their geographic diversity.
- 1984 – Mountain School, Vershire, Vermont
- 1986 – Swiss Semester, Zermatt, Switzerland
- 1988 – Maine Coast Semester, Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki, Wiscasset, Maine
- 1995 – The Outdoor Academy, Pisgah Forest, North Carolina
- 1996 – CITYterm, Dobbs Ferry, New York
- 1997 – High School Semester at Sea (Ocean Classroom), Western North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (closed July 2014)
- 1998 – HMI Semester, Leadville, Colorado (originally named Rocky Mountain Semester)
- 1999 – The Island School, Cape Eleuthera, Bahamas
- 1999 – Oxbow School, Napa, California
- 2000 – The Traveling School, Bozeman, Montana
- 2004 – Woolman Semester, Nevada City, California
- 2004 – Kroka Semester School, Marlow, New Hampshire
- 2009 – School for Ethics and Global Leadership, Washington, D.C.
- 2009 – Finding the Good, Nevada City, California
- 2010 – Coastal Studies for Girls, Freeport, Maine
- 2010 – Conserve School, Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin
- 2012 – Alzar School, Valley County, Idaho
- 2012 – Burr and Burton Academy Mountain Campus, Manchester, Vermont
- 2016 – School in the Woods Ivoryton, Connecticut
- Semester Schools Network
- The Hotchkiss School - Semester Off-Campus Opportunities
- National Association of Independent Schools: Semester Schools
- Peterson's Semester Schools: Great Opportunities
- Private School Review: Semester Schools
- Information from a review of semester school websites
- College Bound Network: Living and Learning at Semester Schools
- New York Times - Semester Away
- SEEN Magazine - Semester school programs
- The Lovett School - Semester School Programs
- College Bound Network: A New Adventure at Semester Schools