Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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BASIS School, Inc.

Location Tucson, Ariz.
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1998
Grades 5-12
Enrollment 246
English Learners 1%
Subsidized Meals Not
Special Needs 1%
Per Pupil Spending $5,339

In the midst of a national focus on educational performance and accountability, BASIS School, Inc. achieves both through its priorities of hard work and academic achievement. The school's mission is to provide a rigorous academic background to prepare students for college, with an emphasis on a classical liberal arts education based on European education practices. Struggling students receive extra academic support until they can meet the school's performance standards, and teachers are hired not on the basis of certification but according to their level of expertise. Of the 19 faculty members, 10 have a master's degree, and two have doctorate degrees, all in the subjects they are teaching. BASIS parents, who maintain an active community dialogue, adhere strongly to the school's mission. Says one parent, "The workload is hard, but it brings a sense of satisfaction and prepares children for the real world." Students too appreciate their school culture, reporting that the school's small size and emphasis on enabling every student to succeed makes it feel like "an extended family."

Housed in a converted one-story structure in Tucson, Ariz., the BASIS School is open to children of any background or ability, including those who qualify for special education. The school serves a student population that is 74 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian American, and 4 percent African American. The 246 students in grades 5-12 must take a placement exam before enrolling. Students who place below their desired grade level are offered such options as remedial work in summer school, a retake of the placement exam after home preparation, or enrollment in a lower grade. Consistent with the school's liberal arts focus, students in all grade levels take courses in language, literature, history, art, philosophy, mathematics, and science, in a curriculum that is aligned with the Arizona State Standards and also exceeds those requirements in many areas. Sports and fine arts courses are offered to all students, and middle school students take physical education. After some pressure from parents, after-school sports, band, and other courses and activities were added.

The BASIS School is the brainchild of a husband and wife team, both economists, who founded the school to combine their idea of the best from European and American educational traditions. The European tradition, they feel, provides academic rigor, while the American tradition promotes creativity, problem solving, free expression, and a sense of community. Chartered in 1998, the BASIS School proved so successful that in 2001 its founders opened a second campus, BASIS Scottsdale, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Program and Operations

The mission of the BASIS School drives every aspect of its daily operations. School leaders are guided by a self-described "bias toward traditional teaching." They strive "to avoid educational fads and empty slogans and to put substance above form." Faculty, parents, and students fully understand that the students are expected to work hard at courses that are more rigorous than most of those at similar grade levels in local schools. All students begin taking algebra in the seventh grade and move on to calculus in high school. Sixth-graders study Latin to prepare for learning scientific terms and romance languages, seventh-graders take public speaking, and eighth-graders take economics. High school courses are based on the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum, with 12 out of 30 courses qualifying as AP, and the course load is designed such that by the end of the 11th grade all students have enough credits to graduate. In their senior year, if they choose to stay, they may engage in higher-level coursework.

The BASIS School is the brainchild of a husband and wife team who founded the school to combine their idea of the best from European and American educational traditions.

An integral part of the school's program is its system of yearly comprehensive exams, which every student must pass in the core subjects of English, mathematics, science, and social studies in order to be promoted to the next grade. In January, students take a "preliminary exam" in each subject, which serves as an accountability measure for students, a test-development tool for faculty, and a formative evaluation for teachers, parents, and administrators to make decisions about tutoring and other support options for the students. If students do not score higher than 60 percent on an exam, they are not promoted unless they successfully retake the exam before the start of the next school year. All members of the school community express satisfaction that the school allows no exceptions to these promotion policies. The faculty feel that students learn to take responsibility for their education. When students occasionally leave the school because of the heavy workload, they often come back, reporting that they were "bored" in other schools or felt lost in the larger, less personalized school environments.

Along with its rigorous curriculum and high performance standards, the BASIS School offers a number of supports for students that are designed not only to enable them to reach high academic standards, but also to foster a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Fifth grade, called "6 prep," may include some students who are sixth-graders but not yet ready to engage in the full sixth-grade program. Students in need of academic help have access to tutoring both during the school day and after school and can enroll in four weeks of summer school. Teachers are required to hold after-school office hours twice a week-one day for student help and one day for parent-teacher conferences. Because the school is small, students may keep the same teachers over several years, and the teachers as a result understand students' unique strengths and weaknesses and can target help as needed. In addition to this kind of support from teachers, students also report feeling supported by their peers. One student notes that BASIS students "feel like brothers and sisters." In a school culture where "It is 'cool' to be on the honor roll, and even cooler to be on the high honor roll," the array of student support networks is intended to help students "find enjoyment in academic achievement."

During the last two weeks of the school year, after the comprehensive exams, students engage in project-based learning. Examples include developing and putting on an opera as part of the Metropolitan Opera Project and traveling to Mexico for a marine biology project. These last two weeks serve as an opportunity to put into practice skills that students have developed over the course of the school year.

Continuous Learning

Implicit in the school's high performance standards is an emphasis on improving teaching and learning. Student progress is assessed regularly, with six grading periods over the course of the year and a final, cumulative grade. Student achievement and improvement are acknowledged via frequent honors assemblies. Students receive a gold or silver balloon for achieving "distinguished" or "regular" honor roll, and students who have improved their cumulative average by 2 percentage points or more are honored and also awarded a balloon. A limited number of non-academic awards are given out by teachers who wish to recognize students who achieve highly in other areas. The balloons have proven to be an effective inspiration to work hard, and even high school boys report "loving" the balloons. Students carry them throughout the school day, and they are a visible symbol of improvement, pride, and accomplishment. By continually recognizing student achievement and improvement, the school aims to strike "an appropriate balance between students feeling challenged by rigorous academics and the self-satisfaction that flows from the school's recognition of excellence based on hard work."

The BASIS School also devotes significant time and resources to improving teacher practice. At least once a semester, and twice or more for new teachers, the school director makes unscheduled observations of each teacher in his or her classroom. Observations are also conducted by peers, and in each case an evaluation is discussed with the observed teacher. Any problems are reported in writing to both the teacher and school administrators. Parents may also provide feedback on their children's teachers. "Hard measures," such as test scores, and "soft measures," such as science fairs and math competitions, are also considered in teachers' evaluations.

Teachers meet one afternoon a week to share teaching strategies and information about struggling students. All teachers participate in professional development workshops and trainings, including the College Board's Advanced Placement training, which the middle school as well as the high school teachers attend. At the end of every school year, all faculty and staff attend a two-day retreat, where together they review the students' performance on the comprehensive exams. Consistent with the emphasis on continuous improvement, the next year's syllabi are developed based on their analysis of these results. In August, teachers spend two weeks before school starts finalizing the syllabi and preparing for the year.

The school's founders also structure creative financial incentives into teacher compensation to encourage teacher commitment and improvement. Faculty compensation comprises a base salary and a "performance bonus," which can range from 6 to 14 percent of the base salary. Performance bonuses are based on quantifiable goals determined at the beginning of the school year. Teacher commitment is also rewarded through a "wellness bonus." Teachers start the year with five paid sick days and are compensated at the end of the year for any that remain.

Parents and Partners

The ethic of individual responsibility and clear communication about standards and goals is one to which BASIS parents adhere strongly. Parent buy-in to the school's mission is deliberately sought, as the school expects parents to participate actively in their children's education. Before a student enrolls, at least one parent must come for a school visit and interview with the school director. Parents are informed of the school's strict, high expectations and are told that if a child is not ready to work hard, or if parents are not willing to support their child to work hard, then the parents should consider other educational options. At the beginning of the school year, every student receives a Communication Journal, which serves as the primary means of communication between teachers and parents. Teachers and parents use the journals to correspond, and students use them to record daily homework, other assignments, and important information. Parents also frequently contact teachers by e-mail, often sending group e-mails when the matter is of general concern.

High school courses are based on the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum.

In addition, parents engage in an active community dialogue about the needs and goals of the school. The parent-teacher organization, called BASIS Boosters, operates independently from the school administration and so is not a typical parent-teacher organization. The Boosters run a parent-created and supported Web site addressing any and all aspects of the school. The Web site includes an online calendar, a message board for announcements and discussions, links to resources and photos, and a teacher information database. Recently, the Web site offered a poll to ascertain whether the school should stock healthier snacks in its vending machines. Says one school administrator, "The important thing is that it's run by the parents, not the administration."

The BASIS School was selected by the AALE for a pilot program to develop criteria for charter school accreditation.

Governance and Accountability

Both BASIS schools, in Tucson and in Scottsdale, are owned and operated by BASIS School, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. BASIS School, Inc. serves as the contracting agent with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools and also appoints the school boards at each school. At the BASIS School, Tucson, both school founders currently sit on the board, as does the school director. The remaining members are a local community college professor, who has been repeatedly recognized as a superior educator, an experienced University of California educator and philanthropist, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, the school's drama and public speaking teacher, and a parent representative.

The BASIS School, Tucson, was selected by the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) for a pilot program to develop criteria for charter school accreditation. (AALE is an accrediting agency for liberal arts colleges and universities.) The academy's main criteria are high levels of academic achievement and commitment to a liberal arts curriculum. Charter applicants are also assessed on factors including mission, teacher quality, assessment, financial management, organization and governance, student services, special education, and facilities. Beginning this year, the BASIS School will undergo annual reviews with AALE to secure renewal of its accreditation. In addition, the school continues to be accountable to the state of Arizona, which requires all charter school students to take Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test and the Stanford 9 standardized achievement tests.

BASIS students consistently score well above the state average on the AIMS test, and the BASIS School, Tucson, was the only school in Arizona in 2003 whose students' median scores were above the 90th percentile on the Stanford 9 math test in all grades. While academics are important, school leaders continue to emphasize that "BASIS graduates should be not only well prepared for college admission, but more importantly they should be prepared to succeed in college and enter their adult lives without losing their appreciation of learning."

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009