From the mountains to the islands: Unconventional education programs

The sun rises over the mountaintops, Palo Alto High School junior Avery Reller remembers joining a bustling community of students and teachers to get to work on the farm. At the Mountain School, Reller’s days are filled with the rhythms of nature — harvesting vegetables from the fertile soil, feeding and caring for the animals, and cutting down trees to provide firewood for the long winter months ahead. 

The Mountain School — a 418 acre hilltop farm in Vershire, Vermont — is a semester-long program founded in 1963 for 45 high school juniors who, according to its website, learn to “understand the world and your place in it in a new way.”

This unconventional education experience is just one of the many options that Paly students can participate in for a semester. 

The Mountain School 

Although Reller took the same classes during her semester at the Mountain School and at Paly, she emphasized environmental education as the main difference.

“We had a class that was all just about agriculture and sustainable agriculture and environmental justice called farm seminar,” Reller said. “It was an open conversation about climate change, sustainability, kind of everything.”

Reller added that her classes had an environmental aspect, which connected back to the surroundings in Vermont.

“In our environmental studies class, we would go outside and learn how to identify different types of trees or walk to a stream and identify specific characteristics of the Vermont outdoor environment we had been learning about,” Reller said. “We learned about sustainable agriculture, environmental justice and a lot of climate change issues in the world and specifically present in Vermont.”

Everything we did we did it outside or doing something super interactive, and it made me learn that I really liked that for myself.

— Avery Reller, junior

By focusing on the environment, Reller said the Mountain School shifted her perspective on education and instilled a passion for the environment.

“I think most people, by the end of it [the semester] definitely had more of a passion for wanting to be outside more and being in the environment and caring about it more and being more conscious of their choices and day-to-day environmental interactions,” Reller said.

Aside from gaining a passion for the environment, Reller discovered a preference for hands-on learning through her experience.

“Everything we did we did it outside or doing something super interactive, and it made me learn that I really liked that for myself,” Reller said.

Although learning at the Mountain School was a transformative experience, Reller said that there were some drawbacks.

“I think it’s hard being in such a contained space,” Reller said. “It doesn’t really feel like you have as much freedom because you’re kind of constrained to your dorm a lot of the time and just seeing the same people [makes] your routine so constant and it can feel really repetitive.”

To attend the Mountain School, students go through an application process that involves answering questions about their interests. Tuition for a semester is a hefty $36,975, although the Mountain School’s website states that 40 percent of their students are offered scholarships. 

Reller heard about the opportunity from her sister’s friend and attended the Mountain School for the fall 2022 session. Reller said she recognizes the significant cost as a barrier to participating for some students.

 “The program is definitely not super accessible to average high schoolers,” Reller said. “There’s pretty good scholarship opportunities but I’m sure it’s very competitive and hard to obtain.”

The Island School 

Another semester study away program, the Island School, is set on the island of South Eleuthera in the Bahamas, and is a 100-day program designed for high school sophomores and juniors. 

Senior Paige Henry attended the Island School in the spring session of 2022 and said she would recommend the program. 

“I learned about taking care of our planet and sustainability, how everyone contributes in a community-based environment and learning how to get along with all types of people and personalities,” Henry said. 

Tuition, including room and board, for a semester session runs about $36,450, while a summer session costs $16,850 — according to its website. 

It is definitely an expensive program, but the experience you get in that type of environment is life changing. All the curriculum is hands-on, project-based learning.

— Paige Henry, senior

Henry said that although the program’s cost is sizable, there are benefits not found elsewhere. 

According to their website, one in four students receive tuition assistance where the average assistance is roughly three quarters of the entire cost. 

“It is definitely an expensive program, but the experience you get in that type of environment is life changing,” Henry said. “All the curriculum is hands-on, project-based learning.” 

Every Thursday, students research an environmental topic they chose at the beginning of the semester. Henry researched stone crabs and sharks. 

“We would go out on a boat and scuba all day, and collect data on stone crab claw removal methods and illegal shark finning,” Henry said.  

Following its motto, “Be where your feet are,” the Island School took students’ phones and all other electronics and the students lived without Internet connection. 

“I only had a 15-minute phone call [off of a landline] a week to make to my family, which was difficult to adjust to since I am extremely family-oriented,” Henry said. 

Although Henry had many wonderful experiences at the Island School, there were some complications. 

“I was well-prepared from an academic perspective to go to the Island School, but a few of my classes did not transfer back to Paly,” Henry said. “I had to take two single-semester courses online to make up for the time away from Paly.”  

The Island School also came with challenges that Henry had to overcome as a part of the program. 

“It was early morning wake-ups, lots of exercise and hands on work,” Henry said. “There were four expeditions, one being a 48-hour solo on the beach, which I never thought I would be able to do.”

Although the program was only a semester, Henry affirms that the memories and the friends she made during her time there were everlasting. 

“They [the connections formed] were extremely real and very strong since we didn’t have any phones or internet,” Henry said. “We were forced to connect and get close and [the other students] all became family so quickly.”