Charter Network’s Serious Curriculum Engages Students, Teachers

Published September 7, 2012

Almost a quarter of BASIS public charter school students graduate as National Merit Scholars, and all pass at least six Advanced Placement tests.

The network of innovative public schools expanded to Washington, DC this year, opening its first school outside of Arizona. It plans to continue expanding.  

“The BASIS school network is really designed to bring a true international-standard education to the United States,” said cofounder Michael Block. “Our students should be in classes where no place on the planet are students at the same age in public schools learning more.”

Students receive strong grounding in math, science, art, music, history, and literature. Fifth- and sixth-graders learn Latin to help them master English grammar. Eighth-graders learn Algebra II, and ninth-graders learn pre-calculus. Eighth-graders take Cambridge exams, which British students take at age 16.

BASIS campuses, like all charter schools, must accept all applicants and hold admissions lotteries when more apply than schools can hold. Several have landed in the Newsweek and Washington Post‘s top ten U.S. rankings.

“[There’s] a serious gap between what people think are good schools in America and what are really good schools by international standards,” Block said.

Excitement for Knowledge
BASIS hires teachers regardless of certification who demonstrate passion for their field. Many hold advanced degrees. The schools offer salary bonuses for high student achievement. Great teaching comes from thorough subject knowledge, Block said.

“We will have Ph.D.s teaching fifth- and sixth-graders sometimes,” Block said. “Unless you know the material forwards and backwards, you can’t teach young children.”

Teachers’ passion for their material creates an exciting environment, said Mary Siddall, who chaired the committee to bring BASIS to DC.

“When I was at the BASIS teacher training, I thought I was in grad school again,” she said. “There’s the mathematician. There’s the microbiologist, and the artist, and the distinguished literary critic. They have these amazing, interesting conversations, and that’s what BASIS is. We create a culture where learning and knowledge are good, as an end in itself.”

Responsibility Fosters Engagement
That environment instills love for learning in students, said Allison Kimmel, a research assistant for the American Enterprise Institute who sat in on a BASIS summer program.

“This fifth grader came up to me and was shaking my hand, and he said, ‘I’m just so happy here,'” Kimmel said. “You could tell [students] wanted to be there.”

The atmosphere teaches students to be serious about learning, a trait that propels them toward college, Siddall said.

“We teach them how to take responsibility for their own education so that parents don’t have to,” Siddall added. “BASIS students learn how to become scholars.”

Searching for Satisfaction
BASIS began after Block and his wife, Olga, realized how poorly American students compare to international students.

“It was almost always the case that the students who were educated in Europe or Asia just did better, even than very talented American students,” Block said of his experience as an economics professor. “They were just better prepared.”

Olga Block brought her daughter to Arizona from Prague and put her in what she thought was a good suburban public school, but quickly became dissatisfied.

“She noticed that there were a lot of admirable things about American schools, but one of those wasn’t the content and organization of the curriculum,” Michael Block said.

So they founded BASIS.

Parents Want Serious Schools
Interest in classical, liberal arts education has been growing across the country, said Phillip Kilgore, director of charter school development at Hillsdale College.

“There continue to be stories in the news about different kinds of schools, school choice, vouchers, or charter schools. The homeschool movement continues to grow. Parents just become more aware of different options,” he said. “It has a self-feeding cycle.”

The interest in rigorous, classical education generally begins with dissatisfaction with public schools, Kilgore said.

“[Parents] may not necessarily know what they’re searching for, but when they hear the details, I think it resonates in their own heart what would be a good education for their child,” he said.

That interest is taking root across the country without regard to geography or demographic, he said.

“It’s the kind of education and school that we know is desperately needed and not easily found in the public schools,” he said.

Regulatory Roadblocks
BASIS intends to spread across the country, Block said.

“[There’s] about half a dozen states where conceivably we can operate, and we’re looking at expanding into those states,” he said. “But it’s a pretty narrow number of states we can expand into. And even in those states, it’s difficult to get approval to put schools in suburbs, so we’re toying with the idea of doing independent schools in some states where we can’t have charters.”

BASIS-DC opened this fall for grades 5 to 8, and will add one grade per year until it runs 5-12, like the other campuses. Students come from “all over the city” and varied education backgrounds, Siddall said.

“This is a school that was built for the ordinary child, but we can take them to extraordinary levels,” she said. “Any parent who wants that for their child is the kind of parent that we have. And any student who wants to learn, … that’s the kind of students we have.”

This article is second in a series about education entrepreneurs. Image by the World Bank.