A crisp coat of snow blankets a broad pasture along the Wolfe’s Neck peninsula in Freeport, Maine. This is the view from the second floor window of a 1840s farmhouse converted to house a new, residential semester school, Coastal Studies for Girls. Just over the rise, not visible but only a short walk away, is Casco Bay. You can smell the salt air.

In the long, light-filled room, dorm beds await their occupants. Downstairs are offices, a small dining room, kitchen, two classrooms equipped with a few books and maps, and a collection of microscopes donated by Bates College.

It’s late December, and the building buzzes with administrative activity-phone inquiries, interviews with prospective faculty, logistical discussions about the school’s opening just weeks away. On Sunday, February 14, 2010, a different kind of energy arrives, when about 15 sophomore girls will gather for Coastal Studies for Girls’ inaugural semester.

For executive director Pam Erickson and several others, this is a ten-year dream come true. Coastal Studies for Girls (CSG) will be the only residential semester science school in the country for one gender. The program focuses on environmental science and leadership and includes plenty of experiential learning. The goal is to ignite and nurture the science and math aspirations of 10th-grade girls and give them a safe and natural place to learn and grow, says Erickson.

Research has shown that education in an all-girls setting is valuable to a young woman particularly during adolescence, when she might succumb to societal pressures to avoid classes and ultimately careers normally seen as male-dominated, says Ginger Jones, director of development and marketing at CSG. This program aims to help reduce the gender inequity in the STEM careers-science, technology, engineering, and math-and is working with National Girls Collaborative Project and the National Coalition of Girls Schools to that end.

In their new home for 16 weeks, students will sleep, eat, study, talk far into the night, face personal and group issues, work to resolve them, miss their friends from home, experience two seasons of the Maine outdoors, view the sun rise over the fields and the stars at night, challenge themselves with new ways of learning, learn about environmental stewardship, and conduct marine research.

Erickson describes a typical day: Early each morning, the girls trek in silence from their lofty dormitory to the waterfront near Wolfe’s Neck farm and set their intention for the day, be it personal, environmental, academic, or social. Then it’s morning classes. Big blocks of time in the afternoon are filled with activities in leadership or marine research.  After dinner it’s study hall, circle time, bed. Guest speakers will present public programs on campus or at the nearby public library about twice a month. Attire is comfortable and practical. Clam boots are a must.

The inaugural class that starts in February includes girls from several different communities in Maine and the country, including inner-city Baltimore, New York, and greater Boston. A home-schooled girl from western Maine is enrolled, as is Abigail Mahoney, from nearby Freeport High School. The goal is to have the student group as diverse as possible. Tuition for the 16-week term is $16,500. About half the students have scholarships of some kind.

Mahoney, 15, says she always had in mind to do a semester study program during her high school years. Her mom heard about Coastal Studies for Girls and encouraged her to apply. “I’ve always liked science, and that made me kind of excited. Also the leadership piece. You don’t always get that in high school.”

The sophomore is willing to take a break from her many activities-sports, chamber choir, and math team-to be a kind of pioneer at CSG. “I love doing new things and meeting new people,” she says. She is interested in pursuing science in college and has medicine in mind as a career.

Erickson first proposed the idea for a semester school in 1999, when she worked as director of science and wilderness programs for women and girls at Camp Kieve on Damariscotta Lake. “I was in an environment where those experiences happened in the summer. These girls were on fire. I thought, how neat it would be to work with them over a longer period of time.”

In 2004, she connected with Edith Aronson, a Portland educator and now CSG board chair, who, along with a dedicated group, slowly got the program off the ground. “We had a path,” says Erickson. “The residential, semester-school model already existed.”

They visited several similar programs, including Chewonki in Maine and The Mountain School in Vermont. But there were still challenges. “Every time we reached for the manual on how to start a girls semester school, the shelf was empty. We knew who we were going to serve and why, but how we were going to get there wasn’t so clear.”

In 2008, CSG bought a farmhouse and barn from Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation and renovated the farmhouse, completing the first phase of the physical plant. They renovated instead of building new, says Erickson, to keep the program as “green” as possible.

The school leases eight acres from the foundation, and has plans for a few additional structures. “We have room for 15 girls and the goal is to get to 32 per semester. We’ll keep the community small purposefully.”

When the proposal for all phases of the campus was presented to the Freeport Planning Board, there was some concern among neighbors. “People weren’t sure what this meant in their backyards,” says Jones. The planning process allowed the school to address those issues. For instance, they consulted with the Freeport Historical Society and came up with design that kept the farmhouse façade historic, building second-story dormers only on the backside. The plan also had to pass muster with Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation and the American Farmland Trust.

Coastal Studies for Girls has had “a wonderful reception” from the community of other semester programs, Jones adds.  The sending schools have been supportive as well. “They recognize the value of the all-girls component, and also the tenth-grade component. It catches the kids at an early enough age to inform the decisions they make as juniors and seniors.”

In the decade since the school was just an idea with one employee (Erickson), it has grown to five administrative staff and the multi-purpose headquarters, plus barn and new shed. The school employs three faculty, who teach English, math, science, history, and foreign language. A head resident, food service coordinator, and two interns who are recent college graduates, round out the staff.

CSG is discussing partnership opportunities with several organizations, including Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, Maine Lobster Institute, Bowdoin College’s Coastal Studies Center, and the Mt. Desert Biological Lab. The goal is to get the girls involved in citizen research and monitoring.

“Our intent is to have the students work hands-on, with scientists. We’d like to see their work as meaningful and real,” says Jones. “We’re hoping we’ll mesh our program with existing initiatives to better the coast of Maine.”

For more information, contact: Coastal Studies for Girls, P.O. Box 266, Freeport, call 865-9700 or go to www.coastalstudiesforgirls.org.