College professors Michael and Olga Block became frustrated by the plodding pace of American education as compared with advanced classrooms overseas, and in 1998 they opened their own school in a worn-out shopping mall in Tucson.
Their goal was to create a curriculum modeled on Asian and European classroom practices that would propel U.S. students through progressively more challenging material than in standard public schools. The result is the BASIS network of 16 publicly funded charter schools in Arizona, Texas and the District, many of them respected for their academic rigor.
Now the Blocks are opening their first BASIS school in Virginia, in the heart of the Washington region’s technology corridor near Tysons Corner. But the new school, which will be located in McLean, aims to be different from the rest of the network’s schools in one major respect: Students will pay $25,000 in annual tuition.
“What we bring to the game is a globally benchmarked educational system to the area,” Michael Block said. “There are few others that operate at the level that we do. . . . Our objective was to build in America a set of schools that teach at and above the world standards, and that’s what we’ve done.”
The Northern Virginia private school will be part of an expanding effort by the Blocks to open a string of “independents” that will mirror their successful public school network in style and substance but will come with a price tag.
In 2014, BASIS opened its first two private schools on each coast, with one in Brooklyn and the other in Silicon Valley.
The McLean location is scheduled to open in the fall to serve 400 students in pre-K through 10th grade in a converted 11-acre corporate campus near the Dulles Toll Road. It will be the third BASIS private school and represents the biggest gamble so far for the Blocks.
The for-profit school will be entering a competitive market as Fairfax County is already home to elite private institutions such as the Potomac School, Flint Hill and the Nysmith School. Across the river in Washington, parents can apply for their children to enroll at Sidwell Friends, the Maret School, Bullis, Gonzaga College High School, St. Albans, Georgetown Day School and the National Cathedral School, among dozens of top private institutions.
In addition, Fairfax County boasts one of the nation’s top public school systems and a host of strong high schools, including top-ranked magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as TJ.
Which is why the Blocks hope the McLean BASIS school will be similar to TJ, offering classes that focus primarily on science, technology, engineering and math.
“We have this superb education that delivers math and science at the level of the best places in the world,” Michael Block said. “You get a TJ-level education at a modest price.”
The school will not offer financial assistance to cover the $25,000 tuition. But Block noted that the cost is lower than at many peer institutions. Tuition for high school years at the Potomac School is $37,095 annually. At Sidwell friends, middle-school tuition is $37,750 plus $440 in books and laptop fees.
Block said the BASIS McLean tuition is aimed at working families in the Washington region.
“You don’t have to have inherited or hit it lucky in investments,” said Block, a former University of Arizona economics professor who met his wife, a one-time Czech Republic college educator, at a World Bank seminar in Austria.
Mark Reford, vice chairman of BASIS private schools, said the education group purposely chose the Washington region for its newest foray into the for-profit realm. Reford noted the D.C. area’s high population of top-earning, highly educated parents, many born overseas, who revere high-quality education.
“The people who are attracted to our program value academic and intellectual development very highly,” Reford said. “Oftentimes we are very attractive to people who have grown up outside of the U.S. disappointed by academic standards of American public and private schools.”
Reford said the McLean school’s emphasis on STEM courses will appeal to those parents, including perhaps families that desire a TJ-like education for their children in a private-school setting and without the exceptionally slim chances of admission.
“Whilst of course there is TJ, a great STEM program should not simply be reserved for the most brilliant kids in the neighborhood,” Reford said, noting that BASIS students begin studying Mandarin daily at age 3. “We really offer our students, I think, a very distinct learning experience.”