Clarification: An earlier version of this story said not all students have a good experience at semester schools and quoted a student who said she experienced bullying. The student was referring to a summer location-based, experiential program that is not part of the Semester Schools Network. This story has been updated to reflect that.
Hakeem Ceesay, 17, felt a gentle nibble on his jeans. Without shifting his eyes from the whiteboard, he bent down from his chair to stroke Leo, a black and white Portuguese water dog nestled at his feet. Beside him, inside a classroom at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in the District, sat 23 11th-graders from New York, China, and points everywhere in between. They were in the middle of a daily morning exercise where each of them presents a piece of news gleaned from mainstream U.S. news outlets, but also other sources like Le Figaro in France, the South China Morning Post, and Al Jazeera.
“According to a British newspaper called the Mirror,” Ceesay said, “the Salvadoran Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources issued a tsunami warning after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck El Salvador.”
Another student offered a bit about the future of Cuba after the death of Fidel Castro. Another had an item about the North Korean missile program. The point of the ritual is to get the students in the habit of reading a wide range of international news sources and to be aware of different perspectives on events.
This is the start of a typical day at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership, a semester-long residential school, or “semester school,” housed in a gray rowhouse in Dupont Circle, which uses the city as its classroom. The students take standard science and humanities courses. But on Wednesdays, they may visit the Spanish Embassy, chat with the secretary of homeland security or give an hour-long presentation to the State Department on the freedom of press in Eritrea. They even met with FBI Director James Comey in October, two days before he dropped his bombshell about Hillary Clinton’s additional emails.
Founder Noah Bopp, a former private-school teacher, said he was drawn to the semester-school model because “it brings kids from all different backgrounds who are used to going to school in a particular place with a particular group of kids they’ve known for a while ... in a place outside their comfort zone ... at a critical moment” — 11th grade. That idea of transformation is why most semester schools are in nontraditional settings, such as a working organic farm or the wilderness of Colorado.
Bopp says the nation’s capital is just as exotic, in its own way. “Just as no one had cleaned out the pig sty before, no one has met someone who has written a speech for Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Semester schools have been around since 1984. There are at least 13 across the country, according to the Semester Schools Network, a trade group. They cater to college-bound high school students looking to break out of the classroom and, in many cases, set themselves apart in the college acceptance race — but at a hefty price. Tuition can hover close to $30,000. Many offer financial assistance, and some like SEGL have a need-blind admission policy.
At their worst, semester schools are seen as a costly college application padder. “Semester-away programs are, for the most part, opportunities for students with privilege, because they are expensive,” said Patty Kovacs, a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. “It’s an indication that students with privilege are willing to stretch themselves.”
At their best, however, they fill gaps for students looking for a more well-rounded educational experience. In the case of SEGL, some students come from large public schools that offer no courses on politics or international relations, from suburban private schools with limited diversity, or countries where political censorship limits what they can learn.
Ceesay, from Newark, attends a competitive magnet school that offers many advanced placement classes. He said he came to SEGL to “burst out of my own confirmation bubble.”
“People here don’t shy away from conversations,” he said. “This wasn’t an experience I could get at home, so I decided to come here.”
A college counselor originally suggested that Ceesay apply to SEGL. He is one of four kids being raised by a single mother, an emergency medical technician. And no one in his family had heard of semester schools until a packet from SEGL arrived last spring, stuffed with a letter of acceptance and brochures about the program.
“I told my mom,” Ceesay said, “and she was like, ‘Yes, I want you to go to the program. I’m not holding you back.’ ”
After the morning news discussion, Bopp addressed the students at an assembly.
“We have less than three weeks [left],” he said, “so I wanted to remind everyone that this is an intentional community, not a community that you can just fall back into, but one where each student must contribute something to each other.”
Bopp said he got the idea for the school while teaching in Rhode Island. The day after the 9/11 attacks, he faced a classroom of angry, sad, confused 10th-graders. “They were making all kinds of assumptions about who did this and why,” he said. “My question was how to prepare kids for a post-9/11 world?” He went on to run a program for high school students through Duke University that would become the basis of SEGL. It focused on ethical thinking and global awareness. He has driven that home in memorable ways like having former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served more than three years in prison for political corruption and influence peddling, come talk to the students about Washington’s ethical challenges.
In the past, high school students looking for “uniqueness” attended weeks-long summer community-service trips focused on philanthropy — until admissions officers came to see them mainly as a signifier of affluence. More recently, semester schools have emerged as an alternative.
“There’s no doubt that semester schools are becoming more and more popular among high school students,” said Ray McGaughey, director of admissions at the High Mountain Institute in Leadville, Colo., which started with 21 students in 1995 and now has 48 per semester.
Some prospective students and families question the high price tag of fostering self-discovery in exotic landscapes, instead of local communities.
Admissions officers at semester schools are used to such comments. And they concede there is some truth to them. “There’s no doubt in my mind that semester schools are truly transformative experiences, and most students come from sending schools that make it easy for students to attend semester-away programs, but it is true that the students who need it the most do not hear about it,” said Mairéad O’Grady, director of admissions at SEGL.
Not all students have a good experience at location-based, experiential programs. Jacquelyn Sussman, a Staples High School student from Connecticut who attended a summer program that is not part of the Semester Schools Network, said she experienced bullying and left disillusioned with the concept.
“It’s hard to imagine that these wealthy kids would come back from semester-away programs in the wilderness to become global, communal scholars,” Sussman said. “I think these people’s motives are very shallow and transparent.”
When considering semester schools, Rachel B. Rubin, co-founder of college consulting company Spark Admissions in Newton Centre, Mass., said students need to genuinely get something out of it or else “it might come across as résumé filler to admissions officials, who may also wonder if the student sacrificed better opportunities at his or her home school for a ‘fun’ experience in a new setting.”
Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, said insincerity is easy to detect: “We find that the way a student writes about the experience, the way their instructors describe their participation, and how they talk about the experience in an interview can give us some sense of the impact the program had on the student.”
Admissions officers and college consultants said that in some cases, attending a semester school can even be detrimental. “If participating in a semester-away program would preclude a student from pursuing AP or honors coursework, for instance, then it would generally not be the best option for that student,” Rubin said.
In such cases, Chicago counselor Kovacs called semester-away experiences an “education interrupt.”
“It’s great if you went to Italy for a semester to do organic farming,” she said. “But if there’s no reflection, no impact, what’s the point of taking a semester off?”
Hakeem Ceesay said the School for Ethics and Global Leadership was right for him and changed his aspirations. “SEGL showed me what I am without sports,” he said. “I used to want to go to the NBA, but right now I am not focused on basketball. If I can get a Division I scholarship for basketball, that would be great, but if tomorrow my school dropped the basketball team, I wouldn’t be devastated.”
Ceesay’s roommate, Dominic Flocco, is also from New Jersey, but holds drastically different political and religious ideologies than Ceesay. The night after the election, the two friends, who supported opposing candidates, talked past midnight. They both said the experience allowed them to better understand the other side.
“At my home school, not a lot of people are vocal about their view, because there is little platform to talk about political issues. Actually, I honestly don’t feel like people followed the election. If they were able to vote, they would vote only based on what they saw on social media, and conversations after the election would never happen,” Ceesay said. “I came here with an open mind, because I wanted to better shape my beliefs and understand myself. I am really appreciative of how everyone was trying to understand different perspectives.”
Shannon Ruochong Sun is a freelance writer in Concord, Mass. To comment on this story, email email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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