WASHINGTON — Walk into a BASIS school and you will realize within five minutes that something is different, said John Hillis.
Students have 45 seconds to leave one class and be in their seats for the next. Classes include physics, chemistry and Latin as early as the fifth grade, along with traditional art, math, English and music courses.
Those differences, and others not so noticeable, helped BASIS schools land in the top five high schools in the nation in two recent independent rankings.
In its second annual ranking of America’s high schools, the Washington Post on May 21 named BASIS Tucson the toughest high school in the country and BASIS Scottsdale, in its first year of eligibility, was fifth. A day later, Newsweek magazine’s list put BASIS Scottsdale in third and Basis Tucson in fifth place.
“It’s been such an amazing week for us. Getting No. 5 in the Washington Post, followed up the next day by No. 3 in Newsweek magazine was just phenomenal — everyone is just ecstatic about this,” said Hillis, head of the BASIS Scottsdale School.
The High School Challenge, developed by the Post’s Jay Mathews, ranks schools based on the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other college-level tests given at a school in 2011, divided by the number of graduates that year.
“It’s a measure of how well high schools are doing getting average students ready for college,” Mathews said.
For the BASIS schools, reaching the top has been years in the making.
When founders Michael and Olga Block moved to Arizona in 1996, they wanted the best education possible for their children. Olga, who grew up in the Czech Republic, wanted a school that would offer the benefits of American schooling with the more rigorous elements of a European education.
When they did not find it, they married the two ideas and devised the curriculum for the first BASIS school in Tucson in 1998.
“The attitude was that [the curriculum] should focus on everything that was lacking in the American education system at that time,” Hillis said.
“The school wanted more of an emphasis on math and science at an early age, while still combining the good things from American education.”
From the beginning, the founders maintained high expectations for students, said Julia Toews, head of the BASIS Tucson School.
“They weren’t afraid to fail kids if they didn’t master the material moving from grade to grade, and we still keep up with that,” she said.
“The school also provides a ton of support for those kids so we don’t just raise expectations and make them sink or swim,” Toews said.
“All of our teachers have to spend time outside of class helping kids one on one.”
BASIS begins in fifth grade, when it aims to teach children how to be good students. Along with the course work, Hillis said, students are taught how to behave in the classroom, ask questions, take notes and manage their time.
Hillis attributes the schools’ success to three things: a rigorous curriculum, hiring flexibility and dedicated students.
Arizona’s charter-school law was key to two of those elements: It gives charter operators the autonomy to create the “new American school” the Blocks envisioned, one merging European and Asian rigor with U.S. openness and questioning, and it lets charters hire teachers who are not certified.
That means BASIS can hire subject experts, even though they may not be certified teachers, Toews said.
“We hire teachers who have degrees in what they are teaching, so we are hiring scholars, most of them have taught at the college level before,” Toews said. “We empower them and we pay them like professionals.
“They’ve helped design the curriculum and they’ve helped create a culture where it’s absolutely OK for kids to be interested in school and want to ask questions,” she said.
Paul McClernon is one of those experts. The BASIS Scottsdale physics teacher was an engineer for 14 years, including 11 at Intel in Chandler, before turning to teaching.
He said his engineering background “helped bring a unique perspective to the job.”
“I feel like I can speak with a little more authority on the applications of physics and how physics really plays a role in real life from an engineering perspective,” he said.
All BASIS teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, but more than half of the 80 faculty members in Tucson and Scottsdale hold master’s degrees and six have doctorates.
While there are advantages to being a charter school — BASIS teachers can earn bonuses from a privately funded Annual Teachers Fund for student gains, for example — there are drawbacks. The state funds charter-school students, but not at the same per-pupil level as at a public school.
“We get less money per kid than the other schools,” said Toews. “We have the advantage that the parents are choosing our schools and that makes a big difference.
“We do diagnostic tests and we do readiness tests before they come in which show us that our kids come in with all different skill levels,” she said.
But while they don’t get the same money as public schools, charters also don’t get many of the problems.
The Post rankings said none of the students in BASIS Tucson or Scottsdale get subsidized school lunches, a measure of poverty. They are the only schools in the newspaper’s top 25 without any subsidized-lunch applicants.
The newspaper also said that just 1 percent of students at the Tucson school had special needs, and none of the Scottsdale students did.
“The other challenges that befall other schools, BASIS has been able to avoid,” said Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill. He said studies have also suggested that charter schools in general lack diversity.
Still, Morrill did not begrudge BASIS its success.
“Every student needs to be educated well, and we always want to celebrate schools that are doing that,” he said.
Hillis called the students the third element of BASIS’ success.
“It’s quite cool to be smart at a BASIS school, and as a consequence you generally do get kids coming in here wanting to learn,” he said.
“When a kid applies, or his parents apply, they have a rough idea what it is we expect. So if they come in and they want to learn, we’ll teach them.”
While the school prides itself on letting students come learn, it makes it very clear that the curriculum is “not up for debate,” Hillis said, and parents need to understand that.
From the first BASIS school, with just over 40 kids, there are now more than 4,000 students at six BASIS campuses in Arizona, with more slated to open in the fall in north Tucson and two in Phoenix. There is also a school planned this fall for Washington, D.C, the first outside Arizona.
Only Tucson has a waiting list, but Hillis said increased attention from the national rankings can’t help but boost their visibility.
“Is this going to do me a lot of good? You better believe it. This is terrific,” he said. “It’s no less than we deserve, and I’m not being arrogant when I say that.”