Despite negative talk about education in Arizona, Tucson currently lays claim to having the top-ranked public high school in the country. In May, the Washington Post named BASIS Tucson the No. 1 most challenging high school in the United States.
That same month, Newsweek followed up with a No. 5 ranking on its list of America’s Best High Schools. And, in April, U.S. News & World Report ranked it No. 6 among its gold medal best high schools.
This is not the first time BASIS Tucson has been nationally recognized for its achievements; it has received top-20 rankings every year since 2008.
BASIS Educational Group was founded in 1998 by Michael and Olga Block and has since grown to include eight Arizona schools, three of which are in the Tucson region, plus one soon to open in Washington, D.C. The flagship BASIS Tucson, 3434 E. Broadway; BASIS Oro Valley, 11155 N. Oracle Road, which opened in 2010; and BASIS Tucson North, 5740 E. River Road, which is due to open next month.
According to Arwynn Gilroy, communications director for the group, Olga Block moved to Arizona from the Czech Republic with her middle-school-aged daughter and placed her in a high achieving Scottsdale school. But after a short time, Block realized the curriculum was not up to the standards she was used to in her home country. On the other hand, she was pleased to see such open communication between students and teachers, and she thought a blending of the two approaches would be ideal.
Michael Block agreed. As a University of Arizona professor, he found that U.S. students were less prepared for college than their foreign peers. Together, husband and wife opened their first BASIS charter school, combining the best aspects of American and European educational systems. (Originally, BASIS stood for Beginning Academic Success In School, but the organization has dropped that and now goes only by its acronym.)
“They spent the first several years perfecting that model with the Tucson school,” said Gilroy. “They wanted to prove this model would be acceptable anywhere it goes.”
Olga and Michael opened their next school in Scottsdale in 2003, and this year it received a No. 3 best schools ranking from Newsweek and a No. 5 ranking from the Washington Post. Craig Barrett, former chairman and CEO of Intel and chairman of the board for BASIS Group, pushed for expansion. He wanted to have a school everywhere in the country, Gilroy said.
The rigorous curriculum upon which BASIS was founded includes coursework and testing at the Advanced Placement (AP) level and in preparation for the University of Cambridge International Examinations. This educational design helps make the schools among the best across the nation.
Students are required to take six AP exams, starting in ninth grade.
“The students do well because we developed a robust system to measure them. They’re held accountable for the material. Tests are given and graded by outside experts,” Gilroy said. “We bring the curriculum down to the middle school level to ensure they’re ready to take upper level course work.”
Cambridge is an exam given to 14-to-16-year-olds around the world, she explained. “Our students take it at about 14 years old. It’s another external indicator.”
Gilroy believes the teaching staff is another reason the students perform at such a high level. Teachers in charter schools aren’t required to have education certificates, “so we can choose from a larger group,” specifically experts in their fields. “More than half have master’s degrees in the discipline they teach and 10 percent have a Ph.D.”
It isn’t all work and no play at BASIS. Students are offered a number of electives, extracurricular activities and sports that are specific to each campus. Gilroy listed lacrosse and fencing as two favorites at BASIS Tucson.
Sean Aiken, head of school at BASIS Oro Valley, makes sure his students have plenty of unique choices available to them.
“We’re working with UA in the telemedicine program,” he said. The class, called Nature of Disease, is offered to eighth and ninth graders and is taught in University of Arizona labs. “It’s equal to the first year of med school,” he noted.
Chess, athletics, science fair and grammar bowl are other options currently available at Oro Valley. Extracurricular activities, said Aiken, “are driven by student interest. We find opportunities and see who is interested.”
Arts are the same, he said. “We offer every program we generate interest in. We have band, ensembles, choir, and drama. We emphasize interpretation of the arts. It’s a vital part of our program. The creative outlets they experience in arts are just as important as technical courses.”
His school, which is near capacity this fall with 640 students in grades 5-12, was the first to be housed in a facility designed and built to be a BASIS school.
Tucson North is another campus being built from the ground up, created in response to the success and study-body growth of the original BASIS Tucson. The new school will open this fall with grades 5-12, receiving its upper-grade students from the mid-town campus. That leaves the once overflowing BASIS Tucson with a more manageable enrollment of 375 students in grades 5-7.
Opening new schools and moving students around can be complicated considering the BASIS curriculum is designed to start students in fifth grade and retain them through graduation. Students have never before been blended like they will be this year at BASIS Tucson North, noted Head of School Julia Toews.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a combination of experienced BASIS kids with brand new kids,” Toews said. “But the older kids enjoy peer tutoring. This will create a great atmosphere.” Approximately 820 students out of a capacity of 850 are registered at Tucson North for this fall, she added.
Since BASIS schools are tuition-free and admit students by open enrollment, they can fill quickly.
“If there are more than we can accommodate,” Gilroy explained, “we use a lottery. All charter schools in the state operate this way. We give preference, as per Arizona law, to children of employees and siblings in the school.”