Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Parent Encounters a BASIS Schools Inc. Charter School

Jennifer McDowell is a mother of three children in the Scottsdale (AZ) attendance area. She is actively engaged in her children’s education and seeks the best opportunities for them to acquire a good education. Basis Scottsdale is a charter school, one of about a dozen operated by Basis Schools Inc. Recently, US News and World Report ranked Basis Scottsdale as the second best high school in America. Much has been written about how Basis schools attract a highly select group of students and even then winnow and sift them down to a couple dozen by graduation time.

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.

We moved to Scottsdale when our oldest child was entering 1st grade. We found a school with excellent test scores, an active parent community, and an old fashioned neighborhood. Our years at Cochise Elementary were filled with engaged teachers who worked hard to provide differentiated instruction for our daughters despite the burgeoning class sizes due to the annual budget cuts. On the advice of our first grade teacher, we had our oldest tested for "giftedness" and our youngest followed when she reached the appropriate age. We even opted out of the “pull out” gifted enrichment classes because we didn't want either kid to miss any class time with their excelling teachers who were exceeding our expectations of meeting our kids' needs.

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.

Thank you, Jennifer, for reporting what so many have suspected is truly going on out there in the world of “school choice.” Rather than the students choosing the schools, it looks like the schools are choosing the students whom they want to make themselves look good.

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.


  1. The sad part is that public school select as well. Chaparral may be one of the best public schools in the state but it is basically filled with well off upper class and upper middle class white kids. It is pretty difficult to get in there through open enrollment if you are a poor kid as the wait list is very long and you have to compete all the other out of district kids who often are also well off and trying to get in.

    Phoenix public school system has traditional magnet schools at Washington, Alhambra and the Madison. If you can't keep up with the work or are a discipline problem, you get booted out and go to regular public school. Funny that sounds exactly like BASIS.

    University High in Tuscon has an admission test and strict admissions standards. Why don't people seem to have a problem with this school? How is this school serving the needs of ALL students?

    Oh yes charter schools are so bad that Scottsdale Unified school district has recently approved starting their own "public charters".

  2. Scottsdale Unified School District has not approved starting our own "public charters". I'm not sure what this term means.

    1. Ms. Kirby; isn't Cheyenne a charter school within SUSD?

  3. sounds like your just bad Basis did not want your kid because he was not smart enough.

  4. Unfortunately, many critical assumptions that Jennifer made are simply wrong or uninformed the least. As a parent of two BASIS children, I know this information first hand and no guessing is involved.

    BASIS Scottsdale does want ALL their students to graduate, however, there is a such thing that is called life or reality:
    1. BASIS is not for everyone, it's highly competitive and some kids just can't survive academically or want to graduate with a better GPA, or simply want to have easier life - they leave mostly before HS years.
    2. BASIS is not for everyone, and some kids want to go to larger high schools because of social life or sports, or a different overall environment and culture - they leave before HS starts.
    3. It's almost impossible to get replacement students because of the significant mismatch between students' level from the BASIS and other schools. For instance, in 8th grade many BASIC students taking some of 12th grade classes taught in typical public HS.

    The equality is an interesting argument in itself. The truth is all other HSs are not equal, because their admission is based on geography, which is it attached to TAX revenue, more expensive homes - more money for schools, and people who live their are more of upper blue and white collar background, thus mostly white. Therefore, BASIS and other charter schools offer a TRUE choice for parents who can't afford expansive homes.

    The choice are there, but making them is not that easy!

    1. I agree I have a daughter at basis Scottsdale and it is a wonderful school she was at archway but already knew everything we moved her to basis in third grade and she is doing great but I also agree basis is not for everyone she had friends who dropped out cause they coudnt keep or didn't want to

  5. My son was placed into 1st grade by the school when he started kindergarten, had been in advanced math since 2nd grade, was tested and placed into gifted program since the 3rd grade. He's now attending Basis, because otherwise he would not be challenged without the kind of rigorous structure at Basis. So, again, Basis is not for everyone.

  6. I'm concerned that Professor Gene V Glass posted a letter from a parent without checking the veracity of the contents and then relying on it for the basis of expressing his opinion. As a professor, you should know better than relying on only one source.

    To Jennifer McDowell’s letter:

    State law requires students to be chosen by a lottery system, not by selecting them by any other method. The weeding out you discuss comes from children dropping for various reasons, but the school does not force any children to leave (unless they are a threat to other students.) A decision to leave is made by the parents and teens.

    There is zero favoritism in regards to wealth or status. Scottsdale BASIS is in a wealthy neighborhood, so by default it will get students from wealthier parents. Phoenix BASIS is in a more ethnically-mixed neighborhood, and gets a different demographic based on that location.

    We’ve seen many kids come into our BASIS school with parents claiming that their kids are ready, and most of the time, they’re wrong. Kids who come in during later years simply are not able to handle the coursework, not because there is so much, but because they do not have a foundation to complete the work.
    It is true that class sizes drop each year, but the primary reason is that until recently, many students wanted a school big enough to support a sports team or more curricular choices. BASIS has been opening up larger high schools precisely because it wants to keep those students.

    Let’s be honest, public schools are not right for some kids, particularly those like ours who were both bullied in Scottsdale schools. The public schools involved were very slow to act on those complaints. From my perspective, though, BASIS served as a safe haven for our kids where they were free to study and learn in a way that wasn’t going to happen at the public school.

    And you know what? When I ask our kids if they would like to go back to public schools, they say “No way. We actually learn stuff at BASIS, and we didn’t in the Scottsdale Schools.” Really, that’s what matters to us.