Jennifer contacted me recently after having had an encounter with Basis Scottsdale, and I asked her to record her experiences so that I could pass them along here.
When our oldest arrived at middle school, we had a less than ideal experience. While the middle schools in Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) allow kids to enroll in a "double advanced" math class in which they are on track to take AP Calculus their junior year of high school, they didn't offer much in terms of clustering, differentiation, tracking or any form of creating a challenge for those kids that might need it. Additionally, after six straight years of love fests between teacher, student and parent, we were underwhelmed by the anonymity of the giant open maw that is middle school with its 6 different teachers and class sizes that have now burgeoned to 36 kids due to the continuing budget cuts. Hence, I made a phone call to BASIS Scottsdale in March of 2013.
I spoke with a gentleman by the name of Ben Sullivan. I felt confident that I could enroll my child as I knew of several kids who had jumped ship from 5th to 6th grade and knew, based on history, that even more students would be leaving BASIS and there would, therefore, be spaces available. BASIS starts out with a large class in 5th grade of around 130 students, eventually graduating a mere 35 students as the rigor and difficulty continue to weed kids out. Ben did not mention how many kids were on the waiting list nor if any room was even available.
After telling Ben that a good friend and neighbor attended the school as well as several of Sarah's former classmates, I was confident that my child would be a good fit academically. I freely admitted to Ben that my child was highly gifted, was eligible for not just “pull out” enrichment but had also been offered a spot in the self-contained gifted classrooms in SUSD, Paradise Valley School District and the Herberger School for the Gifted. Additionally, my child always exceeded expectations on the AIMS (Arizona's state test).
I told Ben that I had been reluctant to enroll my child in BASIS starting in 5th grade as we didn't want to miss the last year of her fabulous elementary school but were now realizing the middle school might not be the best option and were thinking of making a switch. Ben did not guide me through how to enroll my child. Ben did not schedule our family for a tour or give us a day in which my child could "shadow" a student. Ben did, however, tell me, that it would be very, very difficult for my child to enter BASIS. At the tender age of 12, my child would be "too far behind." The "double advanced" math class in which my child skipped 6th and 7th grade math and entered 8th grade pre-algebra was the absolute lowest, remedial class BASIS offered. Missing two years of Latin was another problem. Basically, the message was, if you didn't start in 5th grade or at the very least 6th grade, BASIS doesn't want you. If there are parents stating that BASIS seemed to not want their child with special needs or who struggles in a particular subject, well, I would believe it, because they didn't want my Principal's List, National Junior Honor Society, gifted child.
This May, I made another phone call to BASIS Scottsdale. I inquired if there was a waiting list for incoming 8th graders and how many they anticipated on accepting. Currently, there are over 20 kids on the waiting list and the school anticipates accepting, maybe, 4. Although this class started with 5 sections of students and are down to three, they can only accept as many students as the building capacity will allow. So, in essence, they keep a large number of spots for the early two grades with the understanding and intent of having smaller and smaller classes as the kids age. Based on that model, they don't want their entire incoming class of 5th graders to stay from year to year. They would need a bigger building or be forced to accept far fewer kids in the incoming 5th grade class. If the school is run with a maximum student body of 750 kids and the 5th grade class is 130, then it follows that the older grades must get smaller and smaller if the school still wants be under the number required by the fire codes.
Our public middle school, Cocopah, has just begun an honor's track for English Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies to go with our three-tiered math program already in place. The kids who are automatically placed in this new honors track are first the kids identified as gifted. Second, should space be available, those kids who have high standardized test scores, high grades and are identified by their teachers as motivated students are “matrixed” in. Lastly, if space is available, parents will be able to "opt in." The school is anticipating having at least three sections in each grade that are designated "honors" which translates to more than 90 students per grade or roughly 1/3 of the student body who will participate in at least one honor's class. At Chaparral High School, regardless of grades or ability, any child may enroll in an Honors class or AP class and decide whether or not they choose to take the AP exam. Additionally, each child has to pay the $50 exam fee to College Board. At BASIS Scottsdale, the school pays for all AP exams.
I am not against school choice. I know people with kids with special needs for whom school choice offers an excellent option that their neighborhood school does not offer. But I have a real problem with the comparison between schools like BASIS and my excellent public school. I can promise you that if you took the group of kids in my child's double advanced math class and compared their scores with that of BASIS, we would be on US News and World Report’s top ten list. If our public schools were allowed to only submit the scores of its brightest, most motivated students, we wouldn't have a nation obsessed with the notion that charter schools are doing a better job of educating our young. If our high school was allowed to systematically weed out students year after year until only the most hard-working, brightest remained, I am quite sure you would find a group of students with a 100% passing rate on their AP exams and some spanked SAT scores. In fact, to that end, I would be happy to work with my contacts at the district to provide for you the aggregate test scores, AP rates, etc. of Chaparral's top 35 students. I think that we will find commensurate test scores along with a group of well rounded students who were also exposed to sports, clubs, and students from all walks of life and teachers who were dedicated career teachers that produced those results year after year.
Lastly, when a traditional school district with a budget of roughly $130 million spends roughly $28 million on special needs, why should they be compared to a school that is clearly spending almost none of their dollars on similar programs? By touting charters over district schools, are we, as a society, saying that providing for those special need students isn't important? Some charters do an excellent job of providing services for special needs kids, but not the ones the politicians love to use in their examples of how our public schools are failing.
The measure of a good school isn't about your "cherry picked" student body. It is about the teachers who have dedicated themselves to teach everyone, from the gifted, motivated student to the below average underachiever in the back of the classroom. The measure of a good school should be about community involvement. The measure of a good school should be about the transparency of its budget, its governing board and its curriculum. The measure of a good school should be about how it treats the students from our communities with the highest needs regardless of what that does to its standing in some magazine's bogus ranking system.
First and foremost, the symbol of public education should be equity; equal opportunity given to every child regardless of how wealthy their school district, how educated the parents, or how bright the students. The goal of public education is to educate the public, not an exclusive cohort of exceptional students. When we pay taxes to fund our local police departments, we would not allow the police to respond more quickly to those individuals in their data base who have never had a speeding ticket. We would not allow our fire departments to prioritize emergencies at the homes of people who contributed to their fallen firefighter fund. Why then, do we allow inequities to exist between charter and traditional public schools? If charter schools are allowed to remain, they should do so under the same laws and regulations by which the traditional public schools must operate. Otherwise, a generation from now, we will find that the only true public schools that remain will be for the truly disenfranchised who simply have no other options.
Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.