The name sounds modest, but it is the most demanding proven model for a school ever introduced in the District. The original BASIS school, located in a Tucson shopping mall, has become by one measure the sixth most challenging high school in the United States. Last year, it gave more than 10 AP exams for every graduating senior. Its nearest Washington area rival, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, gave only seven AP exams per senior.
This region has the highest concentration of AP and International Baccalaureate work in the country. Some schools, such as Richard Montgomery High in Rockville, do almost nothing but AP and IB testing every May.
But they do not come close to what is planned for BASIS DC. The D.C. school will do exhaustive summer preparation for new students from fifth grade on. AP courses will start in ninth grade or earlier. Students will not graduate unless they pass at least six of the three-hour college-level AP exams.
It is part of a plan, the BASIS Web site says, “to educate American students at an internationally competitive level.” If you graduate from a BASIS school, its founders say, nobody can argue that you have not learned as much as the best students in Finland, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and other countries whose school systems U.S. educators admire.
That overseas emphasis is not surprising since Olga Block, the woman whose disenchantment with U.S. public schools inspired BASIS, was born and educated in the Czech Republic. She was a college educator who met University of Arizona economics professor Michael Block in 1992, when she enrolled in a World Bank seminar he was teaching in Austria. They married and moved to Tucson, where Olga enrolled her daughter Petra in sixth grade.
That was a shock. Olga had found University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum at a local bookstore and used it to prepare her daughter for American education. She thought it was a standard U.S. text, when in fact it was one of the most rigorous elementary school programs in existence. Petra’s sixth-grade class was different. They studied a whale for awhile, and then a volcano, but did not seem to get much further in science.
The Blocks, appalled, set up their own charter school. It has been in the top 10 of my Challenge Index annual ranking of high schools for Newsweek (to be moved to washingtonpost.com this year) since 2005. When the Blocks decided to expand beyond Arizona, they were introduced to D.C. education activist and charter school parent Mary Siddall, who became chair of the Committee to Bring a BASIS School to D.C. Also on that board are two education reformers, Bob Compton and Marc S. Tucker, well known for warning that U.S. schools are lagging behind much of the rest of the world.
Can such a school survive in the District? Michael Block says that 26 percent of BASIS Tucson’s students are Hispanic or black and that about 20 percent are low-income. Yet the school’s average SAT score last year, 1854, was above the 1852 average at Langley High in McLean, which is only 2 percent low-income. Seventy-two percent of BASIS Tucson’s Hispanic students and 88 percent of its black students had passing scores on AP tests in 2010, compared with national passing rates of 42 and 27 percent, respectively, for students from those groups.
It will be interesting to watch. No one has ever planned for D.C. students to work this hard and do this well. If such high standards succeed at BASIS, other schools may have to give them a try.