Semester schools have served as increasingly popular avenues for holistic education since 1984. While participating in semester school programs, students leave their four-year high schools for one semester and practice hands-on learning, often through experiences that are not offered in traditional classrooms. For example, at a baseline cost of $26,900, students can spend three months at the Bozeman, Montana-based “Traveling School”, where will they study multiple disciplines while traversing countries in either Southern Africa or South America. For $32,650, students can attend the “CITYterm Semester” in New York City, where students are encouraged to spend 16 weeks learning about themselves and about New York City. However, given the steep tuition and prospect of students spending several months away from home, private semester schools like these are not an option for most families.
Dov Stucker and Peter McConville, Burlington High School (BHS) English and History teachers, are bringing a semester-long experiential learning opportunity to BHS, where students will be encouraged to engage with the community through diverse perspectives.
“We look at some of these exciting semester programs that exist throughout the country, and they are all tuitioned. Our goal is to bring the same immersive experience to Burlington High School. It is very important to us that it costs nothing to students,” McConville said.
The Burlington City & Lake Semester will follow the model of a private semester school in that participating students will engage intensively in the program’s curriculum for either the spring or fall semester of one academic year. The program encompasses five interconnected themes: Place, Community & Identity, Citizenship, Social Justice, and Sustainability. While the semester is geared around English, Science, and Social studies disciplines, it will simultaneously allow students to engage in service learning, field-based research, creative arts, and technology exploration.
BHS operates on an alternating block schedule with different courses offered on Blue and White days. Beginning next year, downtown Burlington will act as the academic and cultural Blue Day campus for Burlington City & Lake Semester students. Students will meet at a central “base location”, which has yet to be determined. They will then travel into the community to study and collaborate with local organizations such as Shelburne Farms, The University of Vermont, city departments, and community artists. Through community partnerships, students will conduct projects that directly interact with and impact the city of Burlington.
On White days, students will meet at Burlington High School (BHS). They will participate in a block-long Burlington City & Lake seminar discussion. Students will also take up to three unrelated courses at BHS on white days.
McConville says that direct involvement with Burlington’s dynamic workforce and community will equip students with skills for social and academic success after high school.
“We are looking at school, not as something that’s ‘other than life’, but as something that’s really connected to life,” McConville said.
He also believes that the program will foster tangible positive change within the city.
“I’ve always thought that the labor students and teachers do in school could be put to greater use in contributing to the community,” McConville said. “From the lake and lake health to the development that’s going on downtown, there just seems to be so many things going on in Burlington that are right for study and conversation,”
McConville and Stucker are taking steps to create a program that represents, celebrates, and empowers BHS’s diversity.
“We are really trying as we build our student body to create a real cross-section of Burlington,” McConville said. “We are currently working on how to support as many students as we possibly can. That includes students that are English Language Learners and students involved in the special education program at BHS.”
The City & Lake Semester steering committee is coordinating with partners from the EL program and with special educators to define and minimize barriers for student participation.
They also strive to attract and accommodate any students that may be on the fence about applying for the program.
“We think that one of the barriers of participation is going to be a fear of social isolation,” McConville
To combat this, students are given the option to submit their application as part of a pair. By applying as a “package deal”, students are ensured at least one ally going into the program.
This opportunity acts as a source of comfort for Jesse MacDonald, a BHS junior and prospective Burlington City & Lake Semester participent.
“The option of applying with a partner makes spending a semester away from BHS sound more appealing to me,” MacDonald said. “Otherwise, I might not be willing to leave my friends for part of my Senior year.”
Working relationships between program staff, steering committee members, community partners, teachers, and students in BHS’s School Innovation Seminar class have secured the Burlington City & Lake Semester’s strong mission.
Sarah Montroll, a School Innovation Seminar alumna who graduated from BHS in 2017, helped plan the program in its early stages. Montroll spent part of her Junior year of high school studying at Conserve School, which is a private semester program in Wisconsin. She is proud to have played a role in bringing the Burlington Lake & City Semester to life.
“It was empowering to have the opportunity to use what I learned through my past educational experiences to have a voice in shaping the experiences of others,” Montrol said. “I am excited for the BHS students that will get the same valuable experience I had without the same expenses.”
While the program’s goals and curriculum are secured, many logistical aspects of the program have yet to be determined.
“Where students will be coming and going from is sort of up in the air,” McConville said.
As they work towards determining a downtown Blue Day location, the program steering committee is searching for a reliable system of student transportation.
“We strongly anticipate that city busses will be used,” McConville said.
However, some coaches and student athletes are concerned that transportation to and from downtown will be an issue on game days.
“My concern is for athletes, and for students involved in any other programs, such as chorus, that practice, meet, or compete during the school day,” Marcel Girouard, the BHS Varsity Baseball coach, said. “I want all students to be able to participate in the program, and we need a system that will allow students to simultaneously take part of extracurricular activities during the Semester.”
The steering committee is capitalizing on finding solutions for these concerns.
“We perceive participation in sports will be a barrier for prospective applicants and we want to ensure that students will still be able to be released early and get back to school to meet up with their teams for game day,” McConville said.
In addition, the steering committee is collaborating with Doug Davis, the Director of Food Services at BHS, to ensure that students are provided with accessible meals while participating in the Burlington Lake & City Semester. Although details for meal distribution have not been cemented, Davis is confident that participants will have access to the food they need every day.
Grading is another component of the program that has yet to finalized.
“I can’t speak for where we are going to go right now, in terms of grades” McConville said.
“We are looking at the graduate expectations as being a real driver of our curriculum and how we assess students. We also have some knowledge and understanding maps that look at different things we are going to be studying.”
McConville believes that, no matter what form of assessment is used, student transcripts will be representative of the work that was done.
Finally, the program will inevitably affect scheduling for traditional classes at BHS.
“It’s a difficult thing to try and balance creating new opportunities for students but also potentially maintaining very successful opportunities that exist on campus,” Fialko said.
Concerns have been raised that, since Stucker and McConville will be devoting so much time to the Semester program, students will not access the same course offerings back at BHS.
“Ideally human beings will be hired to fill the eight sections of English and History that will be left open.”
When asked about on-campus scheduling surrounding the Burlington City & Lake Semester, BHS’s director of Guidance, Mario Macias, was unable to comment.
“There is nothing I can really say right now,” Macias said.
Despite lingering logistical questions, the Burlington City & Lake Semester will be launched next Semester, in fall 2018. Applications are now open for current 9th, 10th, and 11th graders on the program’s website, www.btvcityandlake.org. Students are encouraged to contact Mr. McConville or Mr. Stucker with any questions.