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To Use Their Minds Well: BASIS

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Petra Pajtas has an infectious enthusiasm for science fostered in the Romanian schools of her youth. When she came to the US as a teen she enjoyed the individuality but was bored with the lack of rigor. As head of BASIS Phoenix, a grades five through ten, school opened in 2012, she beams as she describes the middle grade science spiral that incorporates biology, chemistry, and physics each year and prepares all students for at least two AP science classes in high school.

"Curiosity is the key," said Pajtas. "We've created an environment that every visiting adult wishes they had in high school - intimate and interactive. It reminds professors of the best of graduate school."

I visited BASIS Phoenix on Friday after a morning at Great Hearts. Both networks are among the best examples of schools that help young people use their minds well.

More in the middle. BASIS manages some of the best schools in the world including 12 charter schools in Arizona, two in Texas, and one in Washington D.C. They managed independent schools in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn.

Professors Michael and Olga Block formed a charter middle school in Tucson in 1998. It was a mixture American ingenuity and the rigor Olga had expected in Prague. They opened a second school in Scottsdale in 2003. A few years later they were recognized among the best high schools in the country.

Preparing for a rigorous high school experience starts with asking more of middle school students including algebra and geometry. BASIS uses Saxon Math through calculus, a graduation requirement. BASIS middle grade teachers stress organizational and study skills.

Fifth graders take Latin and do an hour and a half of homework each night.

In seventh grade students take a Logic class and choose between Chinese, French, Latin, and Spanish. By eleventh grade, most students take a world language AP course.

In ninth grade students get a double dose of English with a focus on literature as well as nonfiction and lots of writing. High school homework expands to two to three hours nightly.

With an eight period day, high school students have the choice of a morning or afternoon elective. In grades eight through twelve more than 15 elective choices are available and these include engineering and AP courses in music theory, art, psychology, statistics, and computer science.

Most students have enough credits to graduate after eleventh grade but most stick around for their senior year and add more AP classes and conduct a senior research project including an off campus experience with a mentor.

Elementary innovation. BASIS has feeder elementary schools in Phoenix and Tucson and will be opening more in the next two years. Students rotate between subject matter experts. A learning expert travels with the students so every core class is team taught.

Most elementary teachers are certified but the network takes advantage of staffing flexibility at the secondary level.

Enrollment offers were sent out on Saturday. There are two or three applicants for every BASIS seat. Enrollment is lottery based and they seek to be broadly accessible. But they are for students that are willing to work hard. About 20% of eighth grade students do not return for ninth grade. They lose some to independent schools, some to big public schools with more options, and some just don't want to work as hard as BASIS students.

Dr. Peter Bezanson is BASIS' CEO. He came from Great Hearts where he led network growth and served as Chief Academic Officer. Unlike Great Hearts, BASIS does not require student uniforms and has a more modest complement of extracurricular activities and sports. BASIS provides more direct instruction than Great Hearts, uses more technology, is a bit more competency-based (placing students into math classes based on demonstrated ability), and is heavily infused with AP curriculum.

"BASIS and Great Hearts are among the highest performing charter networks in the world, and it is no accident that both of us started in Arizona," said Bezanson, "While the per pupil revenue is among the worst in the country, the regulatory freedom and simple replication process afforded to us by our independent authorizer makes Arizona the best charter market in the country."

For a parent's perspective see this post from Julie Erfle who discusses the challenges of delivering this elite education at scale.

Like Great Hearts, BASIS is a high touch model that puts a premium on teaching talent and demands sustained leadership around a common conception of aims and means. Both are special places where young people learn to use their minds well.

For more information on charter networks, check out:

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