Charter school known for rigor comes to D.C.
By Olga Khazan,
Most school leaders say they strive to reach high standards. A public charter school has arrived in the District with a distinctive brand of academic rigor.
Sixth-graders at the school, Basis D.C., take physics and Latin. Fifth-graders read “Beowulf.” After they wrap up their minimum six Advanced Placement classes, Basis high school students can tackle organic chemistry and game theory.
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.
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.”
Basis D.C. was initially met with skepticism. When the school’s founders first applied, staff members and consultants for the D.C. Public Charter School Board worried that the school would not be able to meet the needs of “low-performing, English-language learners and special education students.” Fewer than half the students in regular D.C. public schools are grade-level proficient in math or reading. Charter schools must accept all students, and if there is more interest than seats available, children are admitted by lottery.
“If you have a lottery, as we do, you have no idea what sort of population you’re going to get,” charter board member John H. McKoy said. “You don’t know if they’re going to be prepared.” McKoy, the only board member to vote against Basis, said he now supports the school.
Commenters on D.C. parent blogs also criticized the Basis policy on requiring failing students to repeat a grade.
“I suspect a lot of the kids who are held back will just leave and go back to regular public school . . . and out of the hair of the Basis crowd that doesn’t want anything but the best kids,” one anonymous critic wrote.
Siddall and the Blocks have won over many skeptics. They had more than 60 information sessions for parents in every corner of the city. From February to June, they offered three hours of catch-up sessions a week for incoming students who needed help.
The first Basis D.C. students hail from all eight wards, and 54 percent come from public schools. The student body is diverse, but black students are somewhat underrepresented. They make up 48 percent of the student body, compared with 69 percent in the D.C. school system. So far, the school has enrolled 468 students for grades five to eight and plans to add a grade each year for the four years.
Basis D.C. classes will begin at a lower level than those in Arizona, but students are expected to catch up quickly. The top D.C. eighth-graders will take Algebra II, and all students in grades six to eight will take nine hours of physics, chemistry and biology per week.
Michael Block defended this rigorous approach with a common refrain among school choice proponents: While Basis is not a school solely for the gifted, it’s also not a school for everyone.
“Parents come to us because they want an advanced program,” he said. “We’re not going to go out and capture students with a butterfly net.”
The math- and science-heavy curriculum was enough to woo parents from other public charter and private schools, even from other states.
Lovie James, who lived in High Point, N.C., last year, was considering private school for her son, B’Thorough, 11, and his sister Elle, 13, but the $15,000 yearly tuition was prohibitive. When she heard Basis was opening in the District, the family moved to a house near Capitol Hill so the two kids could attend.
“Yes, it was a major move, but who doesn’t want the best for their child?” James said.
Even as it aspires to academic greatness, Basis still contends with the same challenges faced in many schools. In one study skills session Monday, a frustrated boy struck B’Thorough in the head, grabbing his glasses and throwing them on the floor. The boy then ran from the room. He was swiftly pursued by a coordinator hired to help special-needs students.
To maintain order, teachers instruct students on every detail of their school day, from the way they organize their folders to the way they pass in papers. Students are called to answer when they least expect it.
“At first, the kids are shocked, and that’s when the tears start,” math teacher Tom Davison said. “But we just keep killing ’em with kindness and hammering the fundamentals.”