There's a new charter school opening in D.C. this fall, and if BASIS DC lives up to its flagship's national reputation, public education in the nation's capital will have a much higher bar to meet.
Thanks to the District's well-crafted charter school law, Washington is the only location on the East Coast where Arizona-based BASIS Schools Inc. is expanding its highly successful franchise. BASIS was founded in 1998 by former University of Arizona economics professor Michael Block and his wife, Olga, a former dean at Charles University in Prague, whom he met at a World Bank seminar.
When Olga moved to Arizona and enrolled her daughter Petra in one of Scottsdale's top middle schools, she was appalled by the curriculum's lack of rigor compared with the European education she was used to. Same thing when the family moved to Tucson the following year.
That's when the Blocks decided to start their own charter school "with European and Asian content levels and the environment and structure of an American classroom," Michael Block told The Washington Examiner. They initially had 56 students enrolled in rented space in a Hebrew school, but they needed 100 to break even financially. They reached that milestone in October of 1998.
Within five years, BASIS Tucson, which teaches grades five through 12, was listed as a successful charter school by the U.S. Department of Education. This year, US News & World Report named it the top charter school and the sixth-best high school in the nation. For reference, D.C.'s top-rated Banneker High School was ranked 700th.
Many public schools claim to have great teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a high level of accountability. BASIS Tucson has proved it with its 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rate. BASIS graduates have gone on to seven of the eight Ivies and a large number of other prestigious universities and national liberal arts colleges.
Block is confident these results can be replicated in D.C. "We're very serious," he said. "No one has ever gone to a school like this."
BASIS teachers, recruited from all over the country, don't have to be certified, but they must be highly qualified in their subject areas. They must also demonstrate an ability to connect with students and manage a classroom. But the most exciting innovation is BASIS' rigorous prep-school-like curriculum for middle school students.
BASIS DC fifth-graders will study nine subjects daily, including Latin, ancient history and Saxon math, while reading Rudyard Kipling. By sixth grade, they will be studying biology, chemistry and physics in addition to pre-algebra, American history and J.R.R. Tolkien. At the end of 11th grade, they will already have the credits they need for college, and they will spend a year off-campus working on a senior project. "It deals with senioritis perfectly," Block noted.
Must-pass tests, similar to matriculation exams in the European system, ensure students master subjects before they advance to a higher grade. Block said the school has "nothing close to social promotion."
Instead of waiting for its still-under-renovation building in Penn Quarter to open in mid-July, BASIS DC has been holding intensive after-school and weekend tutoring sessions in four locations since February. Already, 40 percent of the school's 468 open-enrollment students are participating, and teachers are focusing especially on helping the 20 percent who have been identified as extremely low-performing in reading or math. Preliminary test results indicate students, who come from all wards in the city, have advanced more in five weeks of tutoring than in a whole year at DC Public Schools.
"We tell D.C. parents that it will be brutally hard," Block acknowledges. "But when they graduate, their children will be among the best-educated in the city."
BASIS DC still has about 30 slots available for the 2012-13 school year. That's when DCPS and the city's existing charter schools will find out what it's like to compete in the big leagues.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.