Arizona Charter Makes Top 100 List

Published July 1, 2006

When Newsweek released its list of the top 100 high schools in the nation May 1, a charter school in Tucson made history.

BASIS Tucson–which started out as “Beginning Academic Success in School” eight years ago but is now called by its acronym–ranked third in the nation, the highest place achieved by any charter school since the list’s inception in 1998. BASIS Tucson is the first Arizona high school ever to make Newsweek‘s top 100.

The list identifies the most rigorous public high schools in the country, based on Washington Post writer Jay Matthews’ “Challenge Index,” a ratio between the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams taken by all students and the number of graduating seniors. Even if high school students don’t pass exams in such advanced courses, taking them helps prepare students for more challenging college coursework.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said BASIS cofounder Michael Block. “I’m not sure we could have achieved this so quickly in any other state but Arizona, given our strong charter school movement.”

Freedom to Innovate

Two factors are largely responsible for BASIS’s success: Freedom and rigor. Charter schools are public schools, following the same admissions and testing requirements as traditional public schools. However, they are independently operated, not run by school districts. Freed from district control and micromanagement of curricula, charter schools have more freedom to innovate, giving rise to a wide variety of schools–from those serving at-risk students to those, like BASIS, offering college preparatory curricula.

“As a charter school, BASIS can freely innovate with key learning inputs like curriculum design, teacher pay, and student testing,” said Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank in Phoenix. “Teachers and administrators, for instance, have significant bonuses tied to student achievement. But as a charter school, BASIS also bears responsibility for student learning. If students don’t learn, parents can take their business elsewhere.”

Passed in 1997, Arizona’s charter law doesn’t limit the number of schools that can open under the program, nor does it cap the number of charter students. With a simple, easy-to-navigate chartering process, parents, teachers, and administrators open roughly 70 percent of all charter schools statewide. Consequently, educators such as BASIS Tucson founders Olga and Michael Block are free to start schools where there’s the greatest need.

Olga, who taught college in her native Czech Republic, and Michael, a University of Arizona economics professor, founded BASIS Tucson in 1998 because their search for a quality school for their daughter left them frustrated by the lack of rigor in what were supposed to be Arizona’s best public schools. Although only the high school is included in the Newsweek ranking, BASIS Tucson is a grades 5-12 college preparatory charter school offering a twenty-first century liberal arts curriculum with a rigorous science and math program. Students take physics, chemistry, and biology beginning in sixth grade, and algebra beginning in seventh grade.

Rigorous Requirements

To graduate, the high school students must take a minimum of six AP exams and seven AP courses, including calculus or advanced math; two of three science courses in biology, chemistry, and physics; two English courses; and two history courses. BASIS students are also required to take fine arts, participate in athletics, study a foreign language each year, and complete a senior project either by interning at a public- or private-sector institution or by enrolling in an external study program in America or abroad.

“BASIS charter schools are founded on the belief that typical students can excel when that’s expected of them,” Michael Block said. “We create a culture of high expectations for all of our students.”

BASIS Tucson is one of only two schools in Newsweek‘s national ranking with 100 percent student participation in Advanced Placement courses. Unlike many traditional public school magnet programs, BASIS Tucson has no entrance exam, and it admits all students. Matthews reports about half its students don’t have college-educated parents. Nevertheless, all BASIS graduates were accepted to four-year colleges last year, and every one did well enough on AP exams to qualify for college course credit.

The swift success of BASIS Tucson should be welcome news for college admissions officers and future employers. Nationwide, roughly 25 percent of high school students don’t graduate. Worse, research from the Manhattan Institute published in 2003 found only one-third of those who do graduate are prepared for college-level work. Not surprisingly, employers struggle to find qualified employees, particularly in fields requiring math and science skills. In 2000, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy estimated the annual cost of remedial education to businesses and postsecondary institutions nationwide to be $17 billion.

Challenge-Starved Students

BASIS’s success also has a lesson for education reformers, when combined with recent surveys showing students hunger for content-rich courses. The 2005-06 “State of Our Nation’s Youth” survey finds nearly nine of 10 high school students said they would work harder if their schools demanded more, set higher standards, and raised expectations. In addition, 90 percent said they want opportunities to take challenging classes, and 80 percent think requiring students to pass graduation exams in English and math would improve U.S. high schools.

Students who don’t finish high school agree. According to a groundbreaking national survey of high school dropouts released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in March, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” nine in 10 respondents were earning passing grades when they dropped out. A majority said they might not have dropped out if their high schools had better teachers (81 percent), smaller classes with individualized instruction (75 percent), or an academic climate (62 percent).

BASIS Tucson offers its students all that and more, yet receives less than $6,200 per student. That’s $2,500 less than the average Arizona public school receives, and around $3,000 less than the national average.

Vicki Murray, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is an independent education policy researcher in Paradise Valley, Arizona and a member of the board of directors for BASIS Schools, Inc.

For more information …

BASIS Charter high school, Tucson

Newsweek‘s Top 100

“The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts”

Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States

“The Cost of Remedial Education,” September 2000

2005-06 “State of Our Nation’s Youth” survey