The D.C. branch of Basis starts Aug. 27. This week, students are being drilled in study skills, reading and math in the school’s new Penn Quarter building as part of a voluntary two-week boot camp.
In a math prep session, teacher Robert Biemesderfer gave a class of mostly fifth- and sixth-graders 15 seconds to complete a row of multiplication problems. Mental math ability, Biemesderfer said, atrophies over the summer. “And by the way,” he said, “can anyone tell me what ‘atrophy’ means?”
Behind him, a PowerPoint slide read “Nothing halfway,” which is a Basis aphorism, along with “It’s cool to be smart” and “Walk with purpose.”
The two-week program aims to prepare students to perform at the level of their counterparts in Arizona, where Basis began. There, school officials say, a high share of graduates score high enough on tests to be ranked as “AP Scholars With Distinction” and many are National Merit scholars.
“I like the way they teach; it’s interactive,” said Annadora Garner, a rising fifth-grader. “Some of the math is hard, but I think it will get easier.”
Mary Siddall, a Basis mom who spearheaded the effort to bring the school to the District, said everything is hard at Basis.
“We believe everything that’s worth achieving requires hard work,” Siddall said.
Basis was launched in 1998 in Tucson by educators Olga and Michael Block, who believed a traditional middle school curriculum wasn’t strong enough for their daughter. Basis has eight campuses in Arizona; those in Tucson and Scottsdale are ranked among the nation’s most challenging by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews and have drawn praise from other analysts.
The Blocks and other Basis advocates say the schools show how to help U.S. students catch up to those in high-performing countries such as Finland and South Korea.
Basis students who don’t pass a comprehensive exam at the end of each year are required to repeat the grade. Teachers receive bonuses for each student who gets a 4 or 5, the top score, on an AP test.
The school hires teachers who have advanced degrees in their field but not necessarily a teaching license. The Blocks chose the District in part because the city does not require public charter school teachers to have a D.C. teaching license.
Of course, Basis doesn’t have a monopoly on high standards. Plenty of regular and charter schools aim to stretch students academically. But Basis is known for a teaching style that stresses hard work and depth of knowledge.
“There’s a tendency in education that we somehow have to make it entertaining for kids,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a D.C. group that advocates school choice. “The Basis philosophy is that it can be exhilarating to learn a great amount of knowledge.”