This story has been updated to clarify which students BASIS is accepting into its new school in China.
Each new BASIS school that has sprouted across the country since 1998 has been grounded in a curriculum based on the best concepts from Asian and European classrooms. Now, BASIS plans to export its successful model to one of the most competitive turfs in the world: China.
When Michael and Olga Block opened their first BASIS school 17 years ago inside a tired Tucson shopping mall, they wanted to cultivate a new standard for education in America in which students would be taught progressively more rigorous lessons than in traditional public schools. The BASIS name is now known for its academically challenging schools, both public and private, from Silicon Valley to the District. Last month, BASIS announced a new independent campus opening in fall 2016 in McLean, Va.
The BASIS network has had success with its U.S. schools, and in 2015, it took the top two spots on The Washington Post’s Most Challenging High Schools list, with three of its Arizona schools in the top six. The BASIS charter school in the District was rated a Tier 1 school in 2014 — the highest level — with 85 percent of its students in grades five through nine scoring proficient or advanced on D.C. reading exams and 81 percent scoring proficient or advanced on D.C. math exams.
In September, BASIS.ed — BASIS’s education management company — will be testing its brand of reinvigorated American education in Shenzhen, a pulsing financial hub with more than 10 million people on the southern edge of mainland China, near Hong Kong.
“When American education is good, American education is the best in the world,” said Mark Reford, vice chairman of BASIS Independent Schools. “What we want to create is this new kind of education network that is globally offering the best of American education around the world and really preparing kids for the global culture of international life.”
The expansion will be the first foreign campus for BASIS. The pre-K through 12th grade school is slated to open Sept. 1 in a glittering steel and glass building in Shenzhen.
Prominent cities such as Beijing and Shanghai already host international schools, and Reford said BASIS specifically picked Shenzhen because it is a booming city with a market ripe for its offerings. Already, Reford said, the school has seen surprising demand and expects to enroll 400 students when it opens.
Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and education expert, said American-style schools are extremely popular in China, where for centuries students have been taught strictly through rote memorization in preparation for critical exams.
“After age 12, you’re spending all your time to take a test,” Loveless said.
Loveless said wealthy Chinese families have escaped the national system by sending their children to high schools in the United States in the hopes of preparing for an American college education. As acceptance letters to prestigious U.S. universities become even more elusive, parents are willing to move to American schools even earlier for any possible advantage.
The BASIS International Shenzhen school will offer a U.S. education closer to home for many Chinese families.
Unlike some other international schools in China — including the well-known Shanghai American School, which serves only foreign passport holders — Reford said the BASIS school in Shenzhen planned to serve Chinese children and eventually students from other countries. BASIS recently clarified that it is accepting applications only from students with foreign passports, or residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Reford said the school will offer instruction in English and will be seeded in its initial years with American teachers from current BASIS schools.
“They will be doing the exact same curriculum as they do in American schools,” Reford said, noting that the chief tenet of the classroom experience will be intellectual curiosity paired with innovative thinking.
Shaun Rein, founder of the China Market Research Group and author of two books analyzing the Chinese economy, said there is surging interest among Chinese families for American-style schooling and that parents are willing to spend hefty amounts of money to give their children high-quality educations. The annual tuition for kindergarten for the BASIS school in Shenzhen will be equivalent to $25,258 in the United States, and high school parents will pay the equivalent of $30,468.
“Chinese families put so much emphasis on education, and for the most part only have one child and spend much of their disposable income on education,” Rein said. “With so much competition and so few good opportunities, people really spend as much as they can on education and enrichment for their children because they are so worried about their futures.”
Reford said the BASIS expansion overseas will continue, with a total of 30 international schools within the next decade, in addition to a growing cadre of BASIS private and public charter schools in the United States. Reford said the goal is to become a premier American school system with global reach.
“What BASIS offers is an American education at its finest, a fusion of intellectual depth with creativity,” Reford said. “That’s what people want.”