BASIS: A History of Innovation

BASIS Tucson opened in 1998. Like most charter schools, it started small: 56 students in a rented space. But it had one incredible advantage over all other “mom and pop” shops.

It had Dr. Michael and Olga Block.

At the time, Michael Block was a Stanford-educated economist at the University of Arizona. Olga was a vice dean at Charles University in Prague. They met at a World Bank conference. Olga moved to Arizona and became Mrs. Block, enrolling her daughter in the local public school.

Distressed by the school’s low expectations and lack of substance, Olga was nevertheless fascinated by the high spirits and give-and-take she found in American classrooms.  She wanted her daughter to go to a school that married world-class standards with that American spirit of creativity.

Dr. Block challenged her to experiment under a new Arizona charter school law to create a new kind of American school for her daughter and other children in Tucson, Arizona.

Michael and Olga are unconventional K-12 educators. They are economists, steeped in both theory and practice. They focus on outcomes, not inputs; results, not fads. They refined the approach during the first few years at BASIS Tucson. They learned from the best school systems and individual schools in Europe, Asia and America. They hired brilliant people with a passion for their subject matter, teachers who shared their vision of creating a world-class public school in America. 

They gave those teachers the freedom to innovate in the classroom and to use internal and external exams to hold themselves accountable for achieving the best results for their students.

The school they nurtured in the first few years produced spectacular results in Tucson. With this model in hand, they picked the highest-performing district in Arizona to test their product in the most competitive market. BASIS Scottsdale opened in 2003.

BASIS Scottsdale was a brand new school, with students coming in from all over the city and at different levels of preparation—and by the end of the first year, it was clear that the model worked.  BASIS Tucson began receiving national recognition from the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation for its rigorous curriculum and high performance standards in 2004, and ranked #3 on Newsweek’s list of America’s Best High Schools in 2006.  BASIS Tucson topped Newsweek’s national rankings, earning the #1 spot in 2008, only ten years after opening.

Michael and Olga invited venture capitalist Bob Compton to their schools in Tucson and Scottsdale to co-host a screening of 2 Million Minutes, Compton’s documentary film following the lives of 6 high school students in America, China and India. Compton accepted, and was so stunned by what he saw at both schools that he returned a few weeks later to find out what made these places tick.

The result was his sequel, 2 Million Minutes: The 21st Century Solution, a film that shows what he learned, and why he believes “BASIS is the best high school in the world.”

BASIS is a game changer, a disruptive force amidst the mediocrity that has defined American K-12 education for the past 40 years. It is a product that is replicable, a model that can revolutionize the future productivity of the United States if only it were dramatically brought to scale.

REPLICATING SUCCESS: GROWING BASIS TO SCALE

Economists both, the Blocks knew that scaling up the model would call for change. When, in 2009, the Arizona budget collapsed and charter funding slashed, they knew it was time to act.  BASIS.ed was created, a for-profit educational management and development organization, to ensure the continuing health of their model and fulfill this vision of growing BASIS to scale across the nation. 

Today, BASIS.ed contracts with non-profit charter holders (BASIS Schools, BDC, and BTX) to provide management services to BASIS charter schools.  There are currently 12 schools managed by BASIS.ed, with more expected.