High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools

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Arizona students outperform Shanghai


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WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14, NO. 1

While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China’s academic gem in the dust.

How did that happen, I asked some of the school’s 9th graders, who variously sport braces and multiple ear studs; whose parents range from truck driver to epidemiologist; who talk of careers as a cardiovascular surgeon, a neurosurgeon, a hedge-fund manager.

Eighth-grade English teacher Lily Dodge leads a lunchtime meeting of students participating in National Novel Writing Month.

“We do an incredible amount of work,” said Alia Gilbert.

“We push each other,” added Yasmeen Sharestha.

“We’re always thinking about college,” said Hannah Reilly. At that, the conversation moved on to the challenge of AP chemistry, what math to take after AP calculus, and a recent English class on the rhetoric of political campaigns.

Fifteen years after its founding by two economists—an American and a Czech, who fell in love at a seminar on the collapse of the Soviet Union—the BASIS network already roosts in the scholastic stratosphere. The Tucson charter school outscored all 40 countries that administered the 2012 PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment exams, with a mean math score of 618, 131 points above the U.S. average. Its 10-year-old Scottsdale sister school scored even higher: 51 points above the metropolitan Shanghai area in math and 42 points higher in science.

The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, in their latest annual rankings, rate both schools among the five best in the country. BASIS students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score on them of 3.9 out of 5. When I scanned the Tucson school’s bulletin board, I noticed that Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, and Williams all had accepted at least one of the 54 students in the 2013 graduating class, some of them on full scholarships; Stanford accepted four.

Teachers Are Scholars

For all that, BASIS schools are open admission. They operate on a shoestring budget: the Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the average funding for a child in a traditional public school. Classes are large: up to 30 students in middle school. Technology is “akin to cuneiform tablets,” Scottsdale’s head of school, Hadley Ruggles, told me.

The BASIS curriculum and its hard-charging teachers go a long way toward explaining the schools’ success. Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

When I visited the Tucson school, teacher Amanda Sweeney’s 9th-grade literature class was discussing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What is it about, Sweeney asked: race, slavery, freedom or, as Huck might say, “sivilization”? And why would he spell it that way?

“I want to put pressure on all your ideas,” Sweeney cajoled her students as they flipped through heavily underlined paperbacks, looking for “textual support” for their answers.

Teachers “have to be scholars” to teach at BASIS, Julia Toews, head of the Tucson school, told me when I asked what she looked for in her teachers. BASIS doesn’t require state teaching certification, but teachers must be “passionate” and “recognize the brilliance of kids,” she added.

Those kids are the other reason for the BASIS schools’ success. The rugged academics attract kids who told me they were bored at other schools and now revel in the challenge of vector calculus and molecular biology. At the Scottsdale campus, sophomore Charlie Murphy explained that he was “never challenged” until he arrived at BASIS in 5th grade. “I’m here for the academics,” he said.

BASIS teachers said that they offer slower learners abundant extra help, and that kids rise to meet the schools’ expectations. But at the same time, those expectations may scare off the less-able, less-interested students, which can mean a test-score bump for BASIS. Murphy told me that his class had 120 students when they arrived as 5th graders, but the group has dropped to 40, as youngsters have transferred to schools with bigger sports programs, more social offerings, or an easier course load. In Washington, D.C., where BASIS opened a school in 2012—its first outside Arizona—10 percent of the original 443 students had left by spring break, among them nearly one-third of those eligible for special education.

Recruiting is “hard,” says Michael Block, the affable 71-year-old who founded and heads the network with his wife, Olga. “This is not the normal school. No one has gone to a school like BASIS.”

With the U.S. frantic about its place in the global economy, employers desperate for skilled workers, and taxpayers and policymakers crying for more rigor from their schools, the question is “why?” Why isn’t this the normal school? Why shouldn’t it be?


Knowledge Revolution

As Michael Block tells it, he and Olga Block decided to apply for a school charter after she and her daughter moved to Arizona and were appalled by the weak curriculum in the public schools. Michael Block was a University of Arizona professor specializing in the economics of crime; Olga Block was an associate dean at Charles University in Prague. Michael calls the two of them “habitual educators.”

Olga Block tells the story somewhat differently. She’d watched as the Czechs shook off the economic lethargy of communism and embraced entrepreneurship within months of their Velvet Revolution. U.S. schools could do the same thing if they were freed of centralized control, she reasoned. “The need for knowledge is in everybody. You just need to wake it up.”

In 1998, the Blocks opened the first BASIS school (BASIS is an acronym whose underlying name has long since been abandoned) in a strip mall in Tucson. Michael Block said he concluded that “if you could do it there, you could do it everywhere.” One-quarter of Tucson families live below the poverty level, 42 percent are Hispanic, the median household income is $37,000. Yet in its eighth year, BASIS Tucson was ranked the sixth best high school in the U.S. by Newsweek magazine.

Five years after opening the Tucson school, the Blocks opened a Scottsdale charter school—this time in an empty medical center—because “everyone said you couldn’t compete with Scottsdale,” Michael Block said. Scottsdale is 9 percent Hispanic, the median household income is $72,000, the poverty rate is 7 percent. In 2012, 92 percent of the Scottsdale district’s 10th graders passed state year-end reading exams and 80 percent passed in math; all of BASIS Scottsdale’s 10th graders passed both.

BASIS has since opened seven other schools, and in 2012–13 enrolled 5,131 students in grades 5 through 12. In fall 2013, it plans to open a charter in San Antonio, Texas, plus three more Arizona schools, including a pilot K–4 in Tucson. Two private schools that follow the BASIS model are planned for Brooklyn, New York, and Sunnyvale, California, in 2014.

“It’s Cool to Be Smart”

That model starts with what BASIS calls a “bare bones” syllabus that’s common to all of the schools and is tested with a common comprehensive exam in the spring. Teachers add to that based on their specialties. Ruggles, the Scottsdale head, has a master’s degree in Slavic languages; the AP literature class she teaches is heavy on Dostoyevsky. In Tucson, Trudie Connolly, a 9th-grade language teacher, is redesigning her curriculum to reflect her interest in the intersection of literature and philosophy.

“We’re economists: we’re output focused, not input prescriptive,” Michael Block told me in explaining the independence BASIS gives its teachers.

About 60 percent of those teachers have master’s degrees; a few have PhDs. Many come from industry or academia. Connolly “flipped” houses. Petra Pajtas, the Romanian-born head of school in Phoenix, was a neuroscience researcher. Bill Weaver, the 5th-grade math teacher in Scottsdale, was a computer programmer.

When I sat in on Weaver’s class recently, his 5th graders were using a Saxon Math book for 7th and 8th graders, the standard BASIS 5th-grade text. Teachers said that such acceleration is central to moving kids through the network’s ambitious math and science programs.

A day earlier, at BASIS Phoenix, I’d sat in on a 6th-grade chemistry class that was practicing converting grams to molar mass with the question, “How many mole of Sn atoms are there in 0.0126 grams of Sn?” The answer, which requires a reference to the molar mass of tin on the periodic table, is 0.000106. The class tossed it off without difficulty.

“They rise to the occasion,” Weaver told me, offering three reasons why they can. “Parents are on top of the situation here. The culture here is you do your homework.” And when a lesson doesn’t click, “we just keep going over and over and over.”

I heard a lot about the BASIS culture: that “it’s cool to be smart,” that teachers “care,” that it’s “not an us vs. them culture.” “If there were popular kids, it would be the geeks,” Alia Gilbert, the Tucson 9th grader said.

At Scottsdale, teacher Marizza Bailey told me about the classes she was designing for 50 of her 11th and 12th graders who have maxed out the AP math curriculum. She’s planning classes in category theory, linear algebra, and vector calculus to accommodate them. “Whatever you want to do, they can teach you,” Charlie Murray said.

High schoolers can graduate after 11th grade—most of them have enough credits, and 10 to 20 percent do leave early—or they can devote 12th grade to individually designed post-post-AP classes and a senior project. In 2012, projects included the link between diabetes and depression, the effects of music therapy on autism, and the musculature of iguana limbs.

Can It Work Everywhere?

Adrien Tateno graduated from BASIS Tucson North in 2011 and currently attends Northwestern University.

BASIS has run into trouble with that accelerated program in its D.C. school. Michael Block said the network opened a school in the nation’s capital to draw attention to its model: the more attention, the easier it will be to negotiate charters in other states, Olga Block figured. Months before its doors even opened, the school began offering remedial classes to incoming students, but math and reading skills are still weak.

“If they can’t read, what are we thinking about” teaching Latin, D.C. school head Paul Morrissey said to me. He also has abandoned physics for some 6th graders until they’ve mastered basic math skills. And about that BASIS culture of hard work and studiousness: “It’s been difficult to get buy-in,” he conceded.

Even so, 81 percent of BASIS DC students were proficient in reading and 77 percent were proficient in math on the D.C. standardized test results released in July 2013, less than a year after the school opened. That compares to a reading proficiency rate of 47 percent among traditional district school students and 53 percent among charter students generally, and math proficiency of 50 percent among traditional school kids and 59 percent among charter students.

BASIS says it has long waiting lists for its schools in Phoenix and Chandler, Arizona, where Intel Corporation has mammoth research and manufacturing facilities. But other schools are underenrolled, and the number of middle schoolers who don’t continue to high school is high. The entire network has only 226 youngsters in 11th and 12th grades, although Phoenix, D.C., and the other new schools don’t yet have upper grades. (Michael Block said 70 percent of middle schoolers now go on to BASIS high schools, up from 30 percent at the charters’ beginning.)

“You can’t make them be there; they have to want to go there,” says Mattida Raksanaves, whose children attend BASIS North. She has recruited 120 of the patients in her orthodontics practice to a second BASIS high school in Tucson. The schools have no playing fields—teams play in a charter-school league—and modest performing-arts spaces. On the day I visited Tucson North, the video board was promoting upcoming meetings of the chess club, science bowl, Model UN, and the cribbage club.

All that makes for a highly self-selected student body. The Tucson school, with 706 students, had just 30 on special education IEP and Section 504 plans in 2013. Systemwide, 11 percent of BASIS students are Hispanic and 28 percent are Asian, although Arizona is 30 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. All but a handful of the network’s 300 African Americans are in D.C. And except in D.C., BASIS doesn’t take Title I or school-lunch funding, so it has no statistics on student poverty.

Targeting the Middle Class

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates there are 6,002 charter schools in the U.S., about 6 percent of all schools. But those charters remain largely an urban choice, serving mostly minority youngsters. More than half the youngsters in charters overall—but one-third of those in traditional schools—are black or Hispanic. The alliance says that one-half of the country’s charters are in cities, although just one-quarter of traditional public schools are.

Only one in five charters is in the suburbs, where most whites live. In D.C., my hometown, 43 percent of all students are in charters. But not a single charter is in the mostly white northwest neighborhoods, or across the district lines in those Maryland and Virginia suburbs where whites and Asian Americans are in the majority.

The Tucson North building, like all new BASIS schools, is a modern steel and glass structure.

The reasons for that are both structural and cultural. It’s hard to find affordable facilities in the suburbs. Some state laws limit charters to big cities or so-called challenge districts. Sara Mead, a member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board and a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, adds that charters find it easier to fend off critics by operating in the inner cities rather than in the suburbs. Serving poor kids “has been a political defense of charters,” she said.

The biggest barrier to suburban charters may also be the most pregnable: parent satisfaction. Suburban and middle-class parents know how to engage with school authorities if they’re unhappy or can afford to move to another district. Although the most capable students may not be well served in all traditional districts, parents with means can often supplement with out-of-school programs or by taking advantage of dual enrollment options for high school students (see “High Schoolers in College,” features, Summer 2011). Districts can also offer selective-admission schools (see “Exam Schools from the Inside,” features, Fall 2012); a charter can bill itself as a school for the performing arts, for example, but it still must accept all comers and have a plan to support the youngster who is tone-deaf.

So far, high scores on relatively low-bar state tests have served to assure middle-class parents that their traditional public schools are good and their real-estate investments are safe. That could change when Common Core standards are introduced in 2014 and, with them, college-readiness exams that have been affirmed by each state’s universities, Andy Smarick, a Bellwether partner, told me. “The results will be jaw-dropping,” especially in districts that are used to acing state tests, he predicted. Many of those districts will respond by reinvesting in their schools with new curricula, more teachers, fancier technology. But some may turn to system-rattling reforms, like charters.

Charter Challenges

From its start, the BASIS target audience has been middle-class and working-class kids because “they have a stinky education, too,” Michael Block said. The network has few competitors in that demographic space (Great Hearts Academies, also in Arizona, is an exception), and Block said he has seen little interest from other education entrepreneurs.

One sure reason is funding. A 2010 Ball State University report titled “Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists” calculated that Arizona district schools received about $9,600 per student in 2006–07 compared to $7,600 per student in charters. In D.C., district schools received almost $30,000, compared to $17,500 for charters.

Michael Block said the BASIS schools received considerably less than that in 2013: $6,200 in Arizona and $12,000 in D.C., largely because they don’t qualify for most funds that target disadvantaged kids. Those funding disparities are behind the network’s plans to open what Block calls “moderately priced” private schools. So are the proscriptions in most states against hiring uncertified teachers, and, in some states, against exempting charter school teachers from local collective-bargaining agreements.

BASIS’s management structure, which includes a for-profit management company, excludes it from still other states. Each BASIS school is a nonprofit that owns its building; among other advantages, nonprofits more easily qualify for tax-free construction bonds. The for-profit, BASIS Schools, Inc., secures the charters, employs the teachers, and handles centralized functions. Among the advantages: it can opt out of Arizona’s teacher-retirement system and offer 401(k) plans instead.

Teacher pay starts at about $40,000 and tops off in the “mid-80s,” Michael Block said. There’s no tenure or uniform pay scale. Teachers receive bonuses based on the number of their students who pass AP exams—$200 for each student who passes with a score of 5; $100 for a 4—but schools must raise money themselves for other performance bonuses. An annual-fund auction at the Phoenix school in April offered a pet portrait by the photography teacher and a jewelry-making lesson with the biology teacher; a plate of pastries made by Petra Pajtas, school head, went for $125.

The Phoenix school building, like all other new BASIS schools, follows a template: it’s a strikingly modern steel and glass structure that was fabricated in Texas, trucked to Arizona, and assembled in four months at a cost of about $8 million, including the land. (Reed Construction Data, an information company, puts the cost of building a typical Phoenix school at $16.6 million. My local D.C. high school was recently rebuilt for $115 million.)

There’s no cafeteria or library. Floors are polished cement; the ductwork is exposed. Theater and orchestra audiences assemble on the parking lot; a garage door in front of them opens into the performing-arts room. I noticed overhead projectors and a cart of laptop computers, but there’s no technology lab. Fifth graders do their math on 8×10-inch white boards.

If proscenium stages and audiovisual equipment made a difference in student learning, the U.S. wouldn’t be struggling to keep up with the international average score on PISA, of course. That makes the BASIS model worth a long look.

“We want to get as good as the best in the world,” Michael Block told me. “Business holds itself to international standards. Why not schools?”

Yes, why not?

June Kronholz is a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, bureau chief, and education reporter.

Comment on this article
  • […] more about BASIS schools’ success on the PISA exams at “High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools”, June Kronholz, EducationNext, Winter 2014; also, see this earlier post about Thomas L. […]

  • LaurelH says:

    My twins just started 5th grade at BASIS and we LOVE it. They made up for 4 years of math confusion in their previous public school in just 2 months at BASIS. The teachers really do love their subjects and yes, that matters when it comes to the kids enjoyment of learning. They are working on 7th/8th grade math in 5th but, due to the extreme degradation in our education systems, they are really working on content that I completed in 5th and 6th grades attending a public school in Maine 30 years ago. BASIS is criticized for its academic rigor, but I would argue that complainers feel that way because our schools have gotten lazy. They are also too focused on coddling self-esteem rather than teaching resilience and hard work. Our kids are capable of more than our public schools give them credit for. BASIS is absolutely a model that warrants a look when we seek to improve our public education system. There should at least be a BASIS available to every student so that they have an option for excellence.

  • Tucson Mom says:

    As a Tucson parent and education advocate, it was disappointing to see some of mythology surrounding the BASIS schools repeated in this article.

    BASIS is a school for gifted, highly-motivated kids with “Tiger parents”. And for this population, it’s a great school. That in itself isn’t newsworthy, however — many of the top schools in our country (district schools, charters or private) with this type of student population score brilliantly on the international exams and send their students to top colleges.

    Although the Blocks like to say that it is an ‘open admission’ school, their enrollment process is designed to weed out students and families who aren’t necessarily prepared for the rigor they provide. And that’s fine as well for this type of school – although this does effectively keep the population of the school fairly white, suburban and/or economically privileged compared to the schools in surrounding areas.

    Here’s what most people miss, however. In Tucson, the BASIS class of 2012 began with 97 students in 6th grade. By their senior year, there was just 33 kids left in this class.

    In Scottsdale, the BASIS class of 2012 began with just 53 students. Only 19 remained in their senior year.

    Is that success worthy of declaring BASIS a “top high school”? Even if you factor in for the estimated 10% of students who graduate early, each school is still only servicing a grade level that is smaller than most single class sizes in high schools and colleges.

    Imagine the headlines if any of suburban high schools were losing 60% of their student population before 12th grade.

    You can go to the Scottsdale School District (population 25,668) or BASIS’s neighboring Catalina Foothills School District (5,000 students) and easily find the same number of high school students who have excelled in AP courses, won academic awards, and graduated to prestigious colleges. The difference here would be that these two public school districts accept ALL children, regardless of race, economic background, and whether or not they have attentive parents, disabilities or social/emotional issues at school.

    The other difference is that while the BASIS founders tout their ‘success’ model, they also seem to be making quite a bit of money in the process. While Arizona’s school languish at 49th-51st in the nation for funding (depending on which survey you use), BASIS has quite a knack for increasing their own state funding, drawing federal grants intended to service ‘high need’ areas, and fundraising. Lots of fundraising. While it does appear that some of the bonus dollars enhance the BASIS education (trips, tech, low class sizes) beyond what the average Arizona student will see, it also seems to be enhancing the Block’s pocket book as well.

    While public charters were originally supposed to provide a fiscally transparent record of the tax dollars they received, the Blocks handily set up a private shell corporation inside of the BASIS nonprofit in 2009. This separate, for-profit company doesn’t have to disclose how money is being spent…and the majority of BASIS’s funding is run through it via ‘service agreements’.

    The “why not” I’d ask here is why journalists aren’t taking a closer look at this model. While I agree that we should have schools like BASIS in our communities, it isn’t doing anyone any favors when hype and confetti is distorting our perspective.

  • LaurelH says:

    @ Tucson Mom: Are Scottsdale and Catalina Foothills not affluent areas? Of course the public schools are doing better there. What about Chandler/Gilbert, Peoria and Tucson where BASIS operates with the same strong results with a much less affluent population? How does it compare to public schools in those areas? Also, you call out that Scottsdale/Catalina Foothills get the same number of students who do well on AP but is that the same percentage? They have a lot more kids. How many more of them are not succeeding in AP classes in comparison to BASIS? Yes, those public school districts take all comers, but really, how many of the students enrolled there have the challenges you call out living in such affluent areas?

    What BASIS is proving is the value of having teachers who are experts in their subjects, high expectations and use of specific teaching methods/curriculum (i.e. Saxon Math). My kids are only in 5th, so I cannot speak to junior high/high school. I can say, that the BASIS approach is way better than the public elementary school my kids came from. There is much that can be learned from BASIS. Instead of being bitter that BASIS is succeeding, I wish our public schools would seriously consider what they can learn from their approach and apply that learning.

    My kids scored as barely above average in their public school. One was accelerated for language but neither was considered a math whiz. I was a math whiz and I suspected something wasn’t quite right – either with the teaching methods or the curriculum. Switching to BASIS validated my suspicion. Number one, the public school chosen curriculum was, well, stupid. Number two, the teachers were out of their league when it came to abstract content like algebraic concepts. Number three, kids who were capable of going faster (mine) were losing interest in the content – either because they were bored or because the curriculum was so poorly designed it was confusing. Both of my daughters are now doing 7th/8th grade level math and doing it well. One has even come to love math and I’m starting to see the same spark in her eyes that I had when I got the problems right. They both LOVE their math teacher. Personally, I don’t care if the BASIS management company is able to make money – that look on my kids’ face when they really “get it” is worth every penny.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    “So far, high scores on relatively low-bar state tests have served to assure middle-class parents that their traditional public schools are good and their real-estate investments are safe. That could change when Common Core standards are introduced in 2014 and, with them, college-readiness exams that have been affirmed by each state’s universities, Andy Smarick, a Bellwether partner, told me. “The results will be jaw-dropping,”

    If people come to understand education, the results will be interesting but hardly jaw-dropping. Imagine a sensible headline when : “Student Passage Rates Lower on New, Harder Tests”

    Traditional public schools ARE good, and they are better overall than market-based charters. Highly selective public schools achieve results as good as those discussed in the article, and do so while serving a more diverse student body and offering a more comprehensive curriculum, and offering better job security for middle class workers, … and have real theaters for parents to sit in, and to be used for other community functions.

  • Bill Kipling says:

    Tucson Mom,

    You point to the fact that the senior class sizes of BASIS is low compared to what they started with ignores the fact that BASIS students can graduate after their junior year.

    Yes, they do have attrition after 8th grade due to students and parents seeking more traditional high schools with more sports and other extra curricular activities. BASIS will never have that, but that doesn’t reflect poorly on the excellent education BASIS provides.

    As a parent of two BASIS students I am proud of my children and the school we chose.

  • Matthew Ladner says:

    I never ceased to be amused by the critics of BASIS. If Tucson Mom or others prefer district schools, they are still available. If they don’t like BASIS, no one has forced them to enroll their children there.

    Next the comment about Scottsdale and the Catalina Foothills is simply priceless when put in the context of a cherry-picking discussion. After all, anyone can go to the highest performing Scottsdale schools so long as they can swing a $700,000+ mortgage. Economic segregation is endemic to the district system-cherry picking on steroids. You might think this would give fair-minded supporters of school districts some pause before casually throwing around cherry picking allegations for open enrollment charter schools, but you would be wrong.

    It gets even better when you examine the admission policies for district sponsored magnet schools in Arizona. University High in Tucson for instance is a very high performing magnet school. If happened to live in Tucson I would certainly consider it for my children.

    If however one examines their admissions policies, you find explicit GPA and standardized test score requirements:


    Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. One fact that Arizona charter critics consistently ignore is that districts here and elsewhere consistently engage in both informal and formal cherry picking and have done so for many decades.

  • Erin Tuttle says:

    To Karl Wheatley:

    Yes, you are correct. Tests misguide parents about their child’s performance. You could not be more wrong about Common Core improving education. This school uses Saxon Math which CC does not align with because it emphasizes procedures. The CC is so far below the methods of this high performing school, it will only increase the gap between private or specialized charters and public education. CC will only strengthen the case that public education fails, not because of its intrinsic qualities but because they have a heavy rope around their neck- the CC.

  • Another Tucson Mom says:

    Tucson Mom is entirely correct, and very nice about it too. I have kids at both BASIS and our real public schools, and I have friends teaching and advising at public high-schools. The fact is that BASIS achieves it’s artificially inflated standardized scores by first screening the students before they enter, then weeding them out as the years go by, and finally only counting the test scores of the few who do in the end graduate from BASIS. Many of the kids who are humiliated into leaving BASIS find themselves quite behind once they return to the local public high schools, often mid-year, although their Alpha-type parents tend to demand placement in advanced classes despite their bad grades at BASIS. Not only are students who are having a hard time “encouraged” to quit, but parents who try to work with the teachers to help their kids catch up are told by the the School Director that “we won’t be with them when they go to college so we should not help them keep track of homework now that they are 14 years old.” BASIS has no interest whatsoever in helping students with difficulties, since these students wreck their super ranking as the most awesome high school on this planet of 7 billion — graduating only a hand-full of seniors each year and still claiming to have found the supreme pedagogical formula. BASIS does not offer grades on line, the teachers do not post course outlines or homeworks online, the parents are never welcomed at the school and most certainly not encouraged to get involved with their children’s schooling. “She is going to have to decide whether BASIS is the best fit for her” is the standard spiel a parent of a child in difficulty will get from the Principal or the School Director. Kids who would have done really well at any other school and don’t really need to actually be taught do great at BASIS. Anyone else is deemed unworthy of being taught. Ultimately, BASIS’s goal is not to serve its community by teaching its children; rather, BASIS uses standard ultra-smart kids to serve its purpose of “winning” the Standardized-Test-Scores race.

  • LaurelH says:

    @ Another Tucson Mom: my kids are at BASIS Chandler. They started having some problems due to lack of organization/study skills. My experience with BASIS has been the exact opposite of yours. The teachers are happy to communicate with me and to help. They are happy to work out an improvement plan and support that plan with their own time as well as connecting our kids to peer tutors. I would predict, though, that if my kids continued to have these same problems in coming years, yes, they would suggest that BASIS is not necessarily the best fit for them. Consider that they may be right; that in making that suggestion they are truly looking out for the best interest of the child who is struggling and stressed and that it isn’t actually about test scores. The BASIS model is to preserve challenging opportunities and not to handicap solid students by slowing down for others – which is the problem in many of our traditional public schools – slowing down so far as to leave many kids bored. That doesn’t mean BASIS doesn’t care about the others, just that there are better options out there for those kids and they should be encouraged to take advantage of them.

    I have been very open with the teachers that I set an 85% goal for my kids. I consider that sufficient for having learned the content, sufficient for challenge and still reachable. Never have I had anyone in the school argue that this is the wrong approach. In fact, they tell me that I am doing exactly the right thing – focusing on improving their learning skills not on the grades. Although traditionally they have high honors for the top 15% which translates to 97% GPA and above and distinction awards for the top 5% (99% GPA and above), all the teachers will tell you that this has become such a ridiculous goal, not because of their guidance but because there are indeed some parents and kids who are so competitive as to be completely unreasonable. They regularly encourage me to keep on the path I am on – even if that means my kids’ test scores won’t bring up their rankings.

    The administrators and teachers at BASIS Chandler really do care about the learning process and test scores are only an indication of how well the child is learning. After all, let’s be honest, the content they are learning is so far ahead of the local public schools that even the lower scoring kids are still likely to score high against their non-BASIS peers.

  • Friedrich H says:

    BASIS is one model of education, in my view rather extreme. If their supporters stick to the “its not for everyone” line then fine. But certainly not a model for America, not even for academically gifted subset. I personally think it focuses too much on learning content & testing & acceleration rather than experiencing educational/intellectual growth. And that attrition rate is just not right. Don’t forget to factor in all the kids that really want to leave or should leave but don’t for whatever reason (they like their friends, parents won’t let them, etc). It’ll be interesting to see how their private school campuses fare.

  • evelyn gallagher says:

    Would like to email the above information to my son in Gilroy, Calif who is impressed with the Basis school an would like to have his l3 year old daughter attend it in either San Jose or Tucson North. She is an outstanding student academically and an accomplished ballerina. Please advise on infor for admitting her to either of the above schools. Heer grandmother is a native of Tucson and lives near Basis North.
    Thank you.

  • Luvedu says:

    Hello can someone tell me 1) what percentage apply and what percentage get in (?not wait listed )? 2) can we establish residency status after my kids are admitted ? 3) is it merit based admission ..

  • Arizona Democrat says:

    @Luvedu — BASIS schools don’t have “merit based” admission. And, despite what @Another Tucson Mom said above, there is NO “weeding out” of kids at BASIS, either before starting, or during their schooling. BASIS schools are public schools. Period. There are bright kids, average kids, and below average kids. Of course, the high academic standards, in line with standards in Finland, Poland, South Korea and Canada, among other excellent academic nations that are well ahead of the U.S.A., are more difficult for below average kids — but BASIS does not “weed them out.” In fact, teachers at BASIS work overtime for any kid who wants to work. (If a kid DOESN’T want to work — well, at BASIS, they’re gonna have a tough time. There’s no skating by at BASIS schools — which is a wonderful thing, quite frankly.

    You also asked about the percentage who apply and aren’t on a waiting list — and that is impossible to say, because every school is different. BASIS doesn’t know if there are going to be open spots, or not — that is, if a family is going to move away, or a kid is going to leave because they want to be a cheerleader or basketball player, or what have you. Most people on the BASIS waiting lists eventually get in. And, you can put your child on several waiting lists, if there is more than one BASIS school near your home.

  • Arizona Republican says:

    Ditto to Arizona Democrat. There IS NO “weed out” in admission only a long waiting list.

    My children just started at BASIS Phoenix and they loved it. What a day and night difference. Although they were sad leaving their friends and teachers at the public school. But what an exciting first day of school. So many interesting classes and challenging homework. They even have martial arts :)

    Now after school, the kids are busying with homework rather then watching Youtube and yawning for boredom. They just loved it.

  • Emily says:

    My son just started his second year at Basis Oro Valley (6th grade) and while he struggled at first, with the personal responsibility aspect of it, he now thrives.

    A few days ago, after he’d finished 4 hours of homework, I asked him if he wanted to stay there.

    No hesitation at all, he said yes. He feels challenged and says that classes are interesting.

    I’ve had clashes with faculty over different issues which it really seems they at least try to resolve, but I won’t send my kids anywhere else…unless they ask.

  • Karen says:

    Evelyn Gallagher just a heads up the Basis school in SanJose is 22,750 a year. I looked it up.

  • Karen says:

    My son goes to the new Basis Prescott,AZ. He is the happiest he has ever been. He was bored in the gifted classes and now feels challenged and excited. He got all A’s his first report card and is excited to work hard to do it again next time.I agree the school is really towards the motivated and smart kids but that’s okay because he needed somewhere to go to be challenged. We are very happy there. I also agree that there is NO parent involvement at all which made me think it was a cult in the beginning but I now realize it is part of preparing them for their future that will require them to be more independent.

  • Yet Another Tucson Mom says:

    I have never understood all the “Tucson Moms” who have such anger towards the Basis Schools. There is no “one size fits all” solution to education. So why complain about different schools methods or standards. I have to guess that the resentment comes from the accolades Basis has received from the various lists ranking performance results? It will be interesting, as the years go by, to see (especially with the increased enrollment and retention) if those rankings can be maintained.

    But, from my personal experience, some of the comments, especially of the “Another Tucson Mom,” do not at all seem correct. My 4 children who were in the Catalina Foothills School District were moved to Basis Primary or Middle School after they all had some level of issues with their schooling. On the less than positive side of their experience – some were getting quite bored or unfocused, found the classes frequently interrupted with “disruptive kids,” had homework “packets” that were finished in 1 hour on the first day it was handed out even though it was supposed to last a week, and were bullied on the mostly unsupervised recesses. I’ll never forget when I learned that a little abusive “gang” of 4th grade girls had developed the slogan “Pretty before smart.” I knew I didn’t want my daughter in that type of atmosphere.

    Although in public school, as a parent, I was able to be on campus and help out in different ways, I did not find the support any greater than what we are experiencing at Basis. There were many great and dedicated teachers there and there are many at Basis. And regarding the comment on that teachers do not post course outlines – at the start of every school year, the students bring home a “Syllabus” that clearly states grading and discipline policies for that particular course and a complete outline of the course including needed materials. Actually – I used to try to keep up with the public school “posts” which very often were not updated on time or even at all – very frustrating. The Basis teachers have always followed the course outline they handed out – wow, they know what they are doing for the school year and even stick to it! Also, it is true no homework is posted online – but instead, each student must maintain a “CJ” (Communication journal) that every day lists homework, upcoming quizzes or tests, special projects or activities. Those CJ’s are great! And, although it took some time for my kids to learn to do a good job with their CJ’s, with support and review from their teachers, they are now really on top of what is expected of them and (glory be) they tell me what they’re doing – not me telling them what they’re doing! They have actually become responsible for themselves!

    I really like the content expertise and ability to excite my kids about what they are studying at Basis. Even starting as early as 3rd grade, my kids had a wide diversity of teachers with particular subject expertise. And every time I have had a question or concern regarding one of my kids experience at Basis, I have had a quick and usually satisfactory response from those I have contacted. The difference with Basis over Catalina Foothills is that I don’t get “lip service” from the upper administrative personnel but I get actual action and help.

    My kids are not “genuises” and I am not a “tiger mom” (are you kidding – not with 4 kids to manage). Neither do all my kids do great in each and every subject. And although they say that Basis is hard and we do more homework than they were used to (average is about 2 hours a school night) – it is very evident that they are learning at an accelerated rate. When I ask if they are happy, they all say they are and they want to stay at Basis (so far). Actually, I try to make sure they know there are other options and other types of skill development and learning which might be great for them. But at this point they get upset at the thought of leaving Basis. They still play sports, do other outside activities, play electronics (way too much) and have to navigate all the social challenges of their age group (although SO MUCH LESS than they had at the public school).

    The academic demands might not be for every skill level of my kids. I have 2 who always make the “90’s Club” ( a “A” average) and finish their homework pretty quickly – to the point where I suspect one might be a little under-challenged in some subjects right now. And the other 2 have to work harder to stay in the 85% range. Maybe, as the studying gets tougher and as our kids develop, we’ll have a better idea of how to help them maximize their skills for the future. So the way I look at it – get as much great education as you can for as long as you can and see where it leads you.

    Just one more thing – I have talked to several parents whose kids have returned to public school after a Basis experience and NEVER did I hear that the kids were behind. As a matter of fact, I have ALWAYS heard that they were ahead and sometimes the schools could not accommodate their advanced level – say in math – within their facility. I even had one girl laughingly say that she was so bored in her new school and getting “A’s” in everything. Sorry – but that last thing I want in our household is a bored teenager – if you know what I mean!

    Good luck to all parents out there – it’s a tough world.

  • Rownaque Jahan says:

    My son is in 7th grade. He goes to Basis Chandler. He takes pride of his school. He likes all his teachers and friends. Even though it’s very hard to achieve but he doesn’t want to give up as he said. He is gradually improving his academic skills in different areas. He loves taking all the new challenges in every school year. He is now in distinguished list. Credit goes to him and his teachers of course. Most of the teachers are very co-operative. They work hard for their students. We love basis. Hope my son will continue to bring decent grades and finish his high school successfully from this school.

  • Ann Kankaanpaa says:

    My daughter Annaliza attends the BASIS school in Prescott as a 7th grader. Nothing short from amazing! She LOVES School!
    She loves her classes. The teachers LOVE what they teach. Nothing can replace the energy of the faculty. My daughter is learning a level I did not know existed in Arizona education. I have always put education as such, get a degree from a great school then do what you want with that. This school is allowing her to really critical think. She was in other charter schools and I am sure her previous teachers would not have believed she could thrive at BASIS.
    The real world is not a cake walk and self discipline is a great quality to achieve. BASIS helps their students become that:self disciplined and proud as heck when the achieve something that was a dream prior to BASIS. The teachers raise the bar to challenge their minds.

    Needless to say I’m giving them a HECK YAHOOOO for being part of my winning team regarding my daughters education. We will see if she graduates from BASIS but I keep praying she will.

    They ROCK big time!!!

    Pardon my grammar. I have the AA degree from a school that is gone!

  • vicki says:

    My son is in 7th grade at the new BASIS school in Prescott, AZ. He loves it and is thriving there, earning straight A’s for the 1st 3 grading periods. BASIS aims to teach the students in the middle school grades organizational and study skills and to be more responsible. It is working! He has become so much more responsible and organized, and is loving the challenge that the school offers. He was bored at the public schools, and is meeting the raised bar that BASIS provides. I have talked to other parents who have children at BASIS that are struggling in a class or two, and they said they have great services in place for extra help/ tutoring. The question we get asked the most by other students and parents is about the amount of homework. Our son does NOT have the 3-4 hours per night that people think. The homework is quite manageable. Our son was able to play travel baseball and still do well in school. The beauty is that everyone has choices in their child’s education.

  • Nancy Davis says:

    BASIS Mesa opened for the 2014-2015 school year. My son started there last year and was a 5th grader. He is a straight A student at BASIS and has been since he started. Why are we thinking of moving him to the Chandler School District when he is obviously doing so well? We believe that there is more to school than teaching for AP exams. Our son has many outside interest that he no longer has time for. It’s a rush every night to get home, eat quickly and start working. All those after school clubs…well it’s great if you can afford them. Also, so many times, he has so much work, that staying until 4:45 when the club ends means he’ll be up late finishing homework and studying. Fifth grade was a pretty easy grade, some nights a lot of homework, others not so much. The class load was manageable. Six grade he does have at least 2 hours of homework most nights plus he has to study. Most teachers will only meet with students during their student hours which is only once, some twice per week. If you need help the day after the teacher’s student hours you’re out of luck.

    His classes consist of taking notes and then spitting them out on exams. There is no time in any of his core classes for any meaningful discussions about the subject matter. It’s a race to copy the notes and then study the notes to then take the weekly exams given in all core subjects. Two February’s have passed and not one teacher has made mention of Black History Month. Recently we had our very own Arizona astronaut launch into space; again no mention of this. His Language Arts class consists of weekly packets that are not gone over in class yet the kids are expected to complete them on their own at home and then take the unit exam at the end of the week.

    What we have found at BASIS is that only the strongest survive. The kids who leave behind all their extra curricular activities and focus solely on their academics. Very smart kids are leaving the school so that they may have a better balance of school and life outside of school. We also have found that the BASIS kids have no idea of current affairs, what’s going on in the world now. They also do little to no community service.

    Why are we thinking of taking our son out even though he is a top performer? Because life is short and there is more to life than studying 24/7. We want him to be well rounded. To understand about the world he is growing up in and to care enough about it to grow into a person who wants to make it a better place. It was great for him to go there for 5th and 6th grade because his other charter school could’t keep up with his level of advancement from year to year. He needed the advanced math and sciences. Now that he is going into the 7th grade the Chandler School District can accommodate his educational needs. He’ll be able to be in advanced, honors and AP classes. Even better, he will have a choice of what subjects he will take his AP’s in instead of being forced to take AP exams that are mandated by BASIS. If he stays on the path is on he will still graduate with as many AP classes as the students at BASIS but it will be in subjects he is interested in and at a pace that will allow him to also grow into a responsible person who understands that life is more about what you scored on a exam.

    BASIS schools are a good idea in theory but I think they are leaving out the human touch. They have many dedicated teachers and administrators who truly care about the students, but whose hands are tied by the sheer volume of information they need to cover in a particular year. It’s the inch deep, mile wide approach to education that may look great on a transcript but may leave your child with great deficits in other aspects of their lives. Also, since many of the teachers have no actual teaching experience or background they lack what it takes to engage and motivate students and are not the best choice for teaching such advanced material. Furthermore, not all the teachers are scholars nor experts in their field. This year BASIS Mesa hired a physics teacher who just graduated from college with a 4 year degree in general physics. I would not call this an expert in his field.

  • betty kuck says:

    This is an outstanding article. I would appreciate a follow up of the BASIS schools , especially the DC school,, where my grandson has attended since its opening 2 years ago. I am so impressed with his curriculum and glad my granddaughter will attend starting this Fall.
    I wish it were in the WSJ so that it would get a wider and more diverse readership.

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