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High-Profile Arizona Charter Operator Coming to D.C.

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A charter school operator in Arizona is bringing its reputation for high academic expectations, and high test scores, to the nation's capital.

The BASIS Schools, Inc., which has drawn widespread attention and praise for its work running a group of schools in Arizona, will open its first school outside the state this fall, in Washington, D.C., in a renovated building not far from the National Mall.

The BASIS model is built on a demanding curriculum, one that its founders say is set to match the academic expectations of higher-achieving countries than the United States. The school requires students to pass comprehensive exams in different subjects to advance between grades. And it puts a big emphasis on building students' personal responsibility, encouraging them to develop organizational skills and study habits early during their time at the school.

The school's eastern migration offers the latest recent example of high-scoring charter operators looking to move beyond their current locations. A California-based organization, Rocketship Education, is headed to Milwaukee, and another based in the Golden State, has its eye on Tennessee.

BASIS was featured in a 2009 documentary, "Two Million Minutes: A 21st Century Solution," which warned of the consequences of what the filmmakers saw as the United States' mediocre educational standing, and touted the BASIS schools as model for others to follow. (See Education Week's coverage of the film.)

The school was founded in 1998 by Michael and Olga Block, who opened the first BASIS school in Tucson and now operate six campuses in the state. Michael Block is a former professor of economics and law who has consulted numerous organizations and institutions, including the World Bank; Olga Block taught economics at a university in the Czech Republic.

BASIS' reasons for coming to the District of Columbia were both practical and symbolic. Compared with many states and jurisdictions, the District gives charter schools a relatively strong degree of freedom in curriculum and staffing, Block explained in an recent interview. BASIS is looking to expand beyond Arizona and the District, into other states, and when it does, it's likely to choose states where charter laws offer similar latitude, he said.

"It's the nation's capital," Block said. "This is one of the best environments for charters, anywhere. ... This is an important enterprise for us."

How tough is the BASIS curriculum? Students begin taking biology, chemistry, and physics as separate subjects in 6th through 8th grade. When schools reach maturity, students must complete Algebra 1 by the end of 7th grade. They take Latin in 5th and 6th grades. They also get a heavy dose of art and music.

It follows that one of the biggest challenges the school faces in the District is preparing new students whose academic foundation is shaky for what BASIS requires, Block said. The program has already been staging after-school tutoring sessions for incoming children and families in the city, classes that are voluntary, but encouraged for students entering in the fall.

About 26 percent of the students at BASIS' Tucson campus are Latino or African-American, according to a recent Washington Post academic ranking. Many of the students who will attend the new school in the District will come from impoverished families, Block told me. But the school has also drawn interest from wealthier families from across the city, he added, some of whom have said they are dissatisfied with the children's experiences in private school education and want to give BASIS a shot.

The charter school in the District will start by serving 450 students in grades 5-8; it will have 700 students though high school when it reaches full capacity. School officials say they have had hosted information sessions about the school in public libraries and other settings across the city to try to pull in families from as many neighborhoods and economic backgrounds as possible.

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