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No-frills Basis school driven by fierce focus on academics

Why can’t all public schools be like Basis Tucson, the organization that runs a top local high school and brings in big bucks from private donors?

It’s partly because traditional public schools have larger and more diverse student bodies, creating issues that might not arise on a smaller campus serving students whose parents are often intensely interested in academic achievement.

Basis operates under a fierce view of academics that grew from an immigrant’s hard-line schooling under a communist regime.

Ten years ago, Olga Block moved here from the Czech Republic to marry Michael Block, a University of Arizona economics professor. The couple incorporated the nonprofit Basis School Inc. in 1998.

Basis Tucson operates a high school at 3434 E. Broadway and a middle school at 3825 E. Second St.

The schools offer few of the typical public-school extras, such as football or cheerleading.

The programs strive to winnow students to only the high achievers. Beginning in sixth grade, Basis gives kids a final test and holds them back if they fail twice. Any public school can do this, but it’s rare, state officials say.

Most Basis students are ambitious children of engineers, attorneys and doctors, kids willing to hammer through math, science, history and literature courses years beyond their academic peers.

Only 10 percent of its students are minorities. None is an English-language learner. Few are low-income or have special-education needs.

What Basis offers is a free stripped-down elite education inside bland commercial buildings. It has the complexion and tenor of the best private schools but paid for with taxpayer money.

“We do for middle-class kids what public schools are designed to do: transform their lives,” said Michael Block. “We don’t solve all problems. We do a certain thing. We do it well.”

Teachers begin in fifth and sixth grade to prepare 11-year-olds to take on pre-algebra and the first of three years each of chemistry, biology and physics. By the end of eighth grade, students are ready for pre-calculus.

If they stumble along the way, though, they are out.

Each child must pass a comprehensive exam in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. If the child doesn’t pass after two attempts, he or she must repeat the grade or leave.

One afternoon a few years ago, a sixth-grader who failed her comprehensive exam walked into Olga’s office and asked, “Do you have the legal right to fail me?”

“Yes, baby, I do,” Olga recalls saying. “If you don’t like the rules, please don’t come.”

This rapid acceleration through tough courses makes it nearly impossible for children to successfully transfer into Basis schools after the fifth or sixth grades. Most can’t catch up.

The founders
Olga Block’s view of academics grew from her hard-line schooling under a communist regime, where she also worked as a university professor and dean.

Opening the Tucson school in her new American home intensified her estrangement from the U.S. education system.

“It was also a frightening thing to me that the first question parents asked me was, ‘Would we have a music band?’ I have a math program. I have a physics program. I have a calculus program. What is this about a music band?”

Olga didn’t try adjusting to the American classroom. Parents, students and teachers adjust to her.

She relented a bit and added music to her curriculum, but she turned her gym into a theater. Sports are an afterthought. Getting Tucson parents to fall in line with her no-nonsense learning philosophy was easy compared with the “helicopterish” parents who greeted her when she opened her Scottsdale middle school in 2003.

“Basically, the first year in Scottsdale, what we were doing was developing strategies of how to keep parents out.”

Parents organize fundraisers and dances, but are asked to leave homework for their children to complete.

The Blocks admit their notions would not work in most public schools.

“This is not possible to run a school like this in the public system,” Olga said.

Teachers and kids
Basis builds schools for children who say they are thrilled to learn the periodic table and pre-calculus in middle school.

“Everyone here knows they are geeks and nerds, and we’re into it,” said Amal Elhag, a 16-year-old senior at Basis in Tucson.

Few of those geeks are Hispanic, black or American Indian, though 7 percent are Asian-American. Michael said he does not recruit students to broaden the schools’ population.

“Legally, we take anyone,” he said. “We certainly don’t discriminate, so it’s a matter of what parents seek us out.”

The Blocks recruit teachers from across the country. Most have master’s or doctoral degrees in the subjects they teach. Their average salary is about $40,000, similar to the statewide average.

Basis teachers receive a bonus and keep their jobs if their students succeed, which means passing comprehensive and state exams and classes. If too many students fail, their contract isn’t renewed.

Unlike at most schools, learning gaps among kids are minimal, history teacher Mark Zellmer said.

“I don’t want to be in an environment where I had all that different range,” Zellmer said. “I know that sounds snotty, but I don’t want to deal with discipline issues.”

Basis parents
Parents will tell you students do not have to be gifted to survive in Basis schools; they only have to be driven.

Susan Price said it makes sense to put her children in a school where their hard work will get them ahead of other achievers.

Once a child demonstrates a willingness to work hard, teachers do everything they can to make sure the child succeeds, said Lisa Rhodenbaugh, who has three children in Basis.

She thinks her boys are happier because the school now has more students and parents understand what kind of school it is.

“My boys have a fantastic social network,” Rhodenbaugh said of her sons’ friends. “They’re from good families who are all about academics.”

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