It was about three years ago when I first met Olga and Michael Block. They came by to talk about their plans for something that had never been done before, and which struck me as way too ambitious. They were creating a high school almost entirely devoted to Advanced Placement courses.
There is no denying I am a shameless cheerleader for AP. Jaime Escalante, the AP calculus teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, changed my life 22 years ago by showing me the power these college-level tests and courses could bestow on low-income students in the inner city. I wrote a book about Escalante, and then a second book about how wrong suburban high schools were to bar their average students from AP. I created the Challenge Index, published in The Washington Post and Newsweek, to identify those schools that had adopted Escalante's ideas and had high participation rates in either AP or a much smaller but similar program, International Baccalaureate.
Nationally, AP is considered a program for high school juniors and seniors. Until I met the Blocks, I never envisioned a school where ninth graders could take AP English Language and Composition, or AP European History, or AP Computer Science, and 10th graders would be welcome in AP Calculus, AP Physics or AP Chemistry. Nor did I think it would be possible to have a school in which at least seven AP courses would be required for graduation.
And yet that is what the Blocks have created in a concrete-block, one-story former day care center in a well-worn commercial area of Tucson, Ariz. They call it the BASIS school.
Olga, 48, a college educator from the Czech Republic, and Michael, 62, a University of Arizona economics professor, met in 1992 when Olga enrolled in a World Bank seminar Michael was teaching in Vienna, Austria. They married in 1996 and Olga, the driving force behind their eventual decision to start a school, began to learn about the educational options in America for her daughter Petra, who was ready for fifth grade.
Olga's story has the charm of many immigrant tales, although in this case the opposite of the usual astonishment over the richness of American life. Being European, she assumed that this very civilized country must have a set curriculum. The Borders bookstore clerk had no idea what she was talking about when she asked for the standard texts for the American curriculum, but she found a fifth grade book for E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum, and figured that was it.
Educators and parents who know Core Knowledge will be laughing at this point. It is a very rigorous program, based on the notion that children must learn lots of facts in order to be able to read and write well. To Olga Block, it seemed like something European children would handle without complaint, so she home-schooled Petra that year using the book. The shock came when she enrolled the child in a public school in Scottsdale, Ariz., for sixth grade, and discovered that typical American middle schools, even in affluent communities like Scottsdale, do not require that students learn much.
"They were going to study a whale for awhile and then a volcano," said Michael Block. To Olga, the program did not make any sense at all. So they decided to start their own middle school in Tucson in 1998, which expanded into high school grades in 1999, and then spun off a second school in Scottsdale that is finishing its first year with 140 middle schoolers.
The original BASIS school at 3825 E. 2nd Street in Tucson, reachable at BASISinfo@aol.com, has 237 students, although no seniors this year because all of last year's juniors graduated early, one of the options the school offers. There are 191 students in the fifth through eighth grades, and just 22 ninth graders, 12 tenth graders and 12 eleventh graders. Many BASIS middle schoolers transfer to larger high schools that have the usual wide assortment of sports and other extracurricular activities, which BASIS does not.
What it does have is probably the highest AP participation rate of any public school in the country. That's right. It's a public school. BASIS is in Arizona, which to the public charter school movement is Mecca, Jerusalem, Fenway Park, Lambeau Field or any other symbol of what is good and true you might worship. Charter schools have had their ups and downs in that very pro-school-choice state, but the Blocks quickly realized that the Arizona law would allow the kind of wild experiment they had in mind and give them tax dollars for every child they enrolled.
They chose AP as their graduation requirement, said Michael Block, who serves as chairman of the school's board of trustees, "because it gave us this wonderful content, communicated that this is a very high level program and provided an extra check on teaching." AP examinations are written and scored by outside experts, and can help administrators see which teachers are doing the best jobs, although few schools use them that way.
Here are BASIS's latest college-level course numbers. In 2003 the school gave 89 AP exams and had 12 graduating students, for a Challenge Index rating of 7.417. That ratio of exam to graduates would likely make BASIS the number one public school in the country on that scale, except that I did not compile a national list for 2003 (I don't have the stamina to do it every year) and I do not include new schools like BASIS that haven't reached their full size.
This year the school gave 99 AP tests, the last of those exams just completed. Their Challenge Index would not compute at all since they have nobody graduating, this year's eleventh graders deciding that they did not want to leave early like last year's eleventh graders. It is a very diverse group of students, at least half of them with parents who did not graduate from college. When BASIS opened, many families signed up just because it was a small, safe and apparently good school in a part of town that didn't have many schools like that. Although many parents who do not live in the neighborhood, including some University of Arizona faculty, are now signing up their children, BASIS as a public school must admit anyone who signs up until it reaches capacity, which has not happened yet.
Most of the families seem very happy with it, despite, or more likely because of, the challenge of college-size reading lists and college-length final exams beginning in the ninth grade. There are 11 anonymous parent or student reviews of BASIS on the greatschools.net Web site, and nine are very positive:
"This school is as close to perfect as I can imagine." (Oct. 2002)
"This is a great school. Very challenging and worthwhile." (April 2003)
"This is the best school I ever attended. While strenuous (Economics in 8th grade!), it makes it easy to get ahead in the game of life. The teachers have time to answer questions personally, and they make sure no one who makes the effort falls behind."
The two negative reviews complained about staff being ineffective in or new to their jobs, although the Blocks say they have made progress in that regard. They say the problem has been that almost no one, including many of the teachers they hired, at first thought students that age were capable of doing AP. When they sent their new faculty to train as AP teachers, the other trainees were aghast that their school was requiring so many college-level courses, and starting them in the ninth grade.
The Blocks say even the College Board officials who run the AP program have appeared uncertain what to make of them, although when I asked Trevor Packer, the College Board's AP operations director, about the Blocks, he was very enthusiastic. "BASIS is a truly inspiring school," he said, "led by administrators who stand at the forefront of a growing body of educators who are seeing tremendous results as they act on the belief that all students deserve preparation for and access to the sort of stimulating coursework found in AP classes."
To graduate, a BASIS student must pass AP English Language & Composition, AP English Literature, AP Calculus or AP Statistics, AP European History, AP American History and two of the three available AP science courses in physics, chemistry and biology. There are also AP courses in computer science and foreign language. The three-hour AP tests at the end of each course are not required at most high schools, but at BASIS students must take the test at the end of at least five of the required AP courses. The middle school students are also accelerated, all of them finishing first year algebra by seventh grade, to prepare them for early AP.
The grading system is also unique. BASIS high school students don't get their final grades until July. Almost all American AP teachers fill out their report cards based on just their student's classroom work, since the AP test scores arrive too late. Half of each AP test is usually essays or similar free response questions that have to be scored by human beings, and that doesn't get done until long after school closes for the summer.
But BASIS teachers wait for the AP results. AP scores go from 5 to 1, the equivalent of a college A to a college F. If a BASIS student's course grade before the AP test is a D, she still gets an A for the course if she gets a 5 on the exam, and a B if she gets a 4 on the exam. Students whose pre-test course grades were As or Bs before the AP test are bumped down to Cs if they get a 1 on the exam.
The Blocks say they are working on improving the scores of their students on the tests. Only 47 percent of the 2003 tests scored 3 or higher, below the national average of about 59 percent, although no other schools I know of have mostly ninth graders taking AP English Language & Composition and mostly tenth graders taking AP Calculus and AP European History. The Blocks say they share Escalante's view that even a student who struggles in an AP course and gets a low grade on the final exam is much better off than a student who sails through a typically undemanding average high school course.
The BASIS students have just a drama club, a band and sports teams for soccer, basketball and flag football, but there are interesting academic competitions. BASIS eighth graders recently finished in the middle of the pack in a high school economics competition, beating eight high schools with teams much older and with much more preparation time.
Outside visitors say they are impressed. "You can't argue with the success of a school in which you can visit the ninth grade class (all the kids) studying pre-calculus, and an eighth grade working through hydrocarbon structures all in the same hour," said Martha Schwartz, a science education consultant. And rather than the fashionable high school block system of 90 minute classes meeting every other day, "they have eight 45-minute classes per day," Schwartz said. "That allows them to have three different science subjects running concurrently as is done in many countries."
Olga Block, who serves as the school's director, said she noticed a different atmosphere during this year's AP tests. The middle school students were walking on tip-toe during testing hours. There was a sense, she said, that they felt the AP students "were the gladiators."
I don't know of any other high school, public or private, that has so closely tied itself to AP. If there are some, I would love to hear about them. I can't imagine many other high schools following the BASIS example any time soon, but Michael Block, watching the numbers like a good economist, says the volume of applications to the school is growing every year.
He said he has been reading and admiring Michael Barone's new book, "Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future." "We are part of the new hard America," Block said. "I think our resistance to softness is one of our comparative advantages."