BASIS, which runs very rigorous, very high performing charter schools in Arizona, will expand to Washington, D.C. this fall. The school will start with grades 5 through 8, then add a high school. Fifth graders read Beowulf, sixth graders take physics and Latin, seventh graders take algebra and high school students must pass at least eight AP courses and six exams. Students who fail end-of-year exams must repeat the grade. Critics say it’s too tough for D.C. students.
Among 45,000 kids in D.C. public schools more than 70,000 school-age kids in the city, it’s “bizarre” to think there aren’t at least a few hundred who’d benefit from “a phenomenally challenging academic environment,” writes Rick Hess. Not to mention insulting.
As Skip McKoy, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board has said, “I’m all for high standards. I’m all for excellent curriculum. Kids should be pushed. But you have to recognize the population.” Mark Lerner, a member of the board of Washington Latin charter school also argued that BASIS “blatantly markets itself to elite students” and is “a direct affront to the civil rights struggle so many have fought over school choice for underprivileged children.”
So school choice should provide no choices for students who are able to excel?
After conducting a lottery, BASIS has signed up a mix of students, reports the Washington Post: 48 percent are black, compared to 69 percent in D.C. schools, and 54 percent come from public schools.
Already, students are working on study skills, reading and math in a voluntary two-week boot camp before the Aug. 27 start date.
In a math prep session, teacher Robert Biemesderfer gave a class of mostly fifth- and sixth-graders 15 seconds to complete a row of multiplication problems. Mental math ability, Biemesderfer said, atrophies over the summer. “And by the way,” he said, “can anyone tell me what ‘atrophy’ means?”
Behind him, a PowerPoint slide read “Nothing halfway,” which is a Basis aphorism, along with “It’s cool to be smart” and “Walk with purpose.”
BASIS is designed for “workaholics,” not for gifted students, say founders Olga and Michael Block, Czech immigrants who wanted a challenging school for their daughter. Attrition is high in the eight Arizona schools and few special education students last long.
It’s not a good school for every student, writes Hess, but that’s OK. “The notion that families and students in DC shouldn’t have access to a high quality liberal arts curriculum just because many students in DC need something more remedial in scope strikes me as a perverse vision of ‘social justice’.”