BASIS Schools

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John Hillis, Head of School for BASIS Scottsdale and Julia Toews, Head of School for BASIS Tucson talk about the recent rankings of the two schools in the top 5 by Newsweek Magazine, The Daily Beast Website, and US News and World Report and what makes their programs among the best in the nation.

José Cardenas: 11 Arizona high schools are named among the top 1000 in the nation by "Newsweek" magazine and the Daily Beast website, and two are in the top five. The new rankings in "Newsweek's" America's best high schools 2012 show the highest-ranked Arizona schools were Basis Scottsdale at Number 3 and Basis Tucson at Number 5. Schools were ranked based on factors provided by school administrators from college acceptance rates to on-time graduation rates. Also, in its second annual rankings of the top 2500 high schools in 2011, 2012, Basis Tucson was named the toughest high school in the country, and Basis Scottsdale was named fifth. "U.S. News and World Report" in May also ranked Basis Tucson sixth in the nation. Joining me to talk about the school's national rankings is Julie Toews, head of the school for Basis Tucson. Also here is John Hillis, head of the school for Basis Scottsdale.

John Hillis: Probably 60% of our teachers have got their Master's degrees, and 10% will get their Ph.Ds. These people are experts in their fields. They don't necessarily have to have taught before, but we need their skills. Apart from that, we have a very, very rigorous curriculum, and that was something that has been established for almost 14 years, and it's been replicated as well. We've proved by the very fight that we are right that the curriculum works. Lastly, I would suggest that the students themselves are very motivated as well as their parents being motivated, too. If you keep that bar low, they'll probably achieve as low as that bar is.

José Cardenas: Give us a little bit more of the sense of the curriculum that's the reason for the success.

Julie Toews: Sure. Well, we start at fifth grade, and we go through 12th grade. Right off the bat, one of the things is that the students don't stay in one classroom with one teacher. They move around from class to class, so the English class is taught by a teacher with an English degree, the science class taught by a teacher with a science degree. They take 9 courses as fifth graders and it does pose an organizational challenge for them. We actually instruct in organizational methods and study skills. We spend a lot of time one-on-one with kids. They take Latin, English, prealgebra, science, geography, P.E., music, and art in fifth grade. And I'm missing something.

José Cardenas: And who developed the curriculum?

Julie Toews: Well, the curriculum was originally established by Olga and Michael Block, who are the founders of the school, and it has really evolved over the years. Part of that evolution has been made possible by the teachers that they've hired. Now I'm going to toot my own horn a little bit, but I came in as a teacher. I'm just an example. I had a Master's degree in English, and they said, look at the English curriculum and tell us what do you think is missing? As bringing teachers in and treating them as professionals and as resources, they really empower the teachers and make them want to stay.

José Cardenas: So it's evolved over time. We do have some pictures of the schools themselves that we'll put up on the screen. Is the Tucson school -- is this one yours?

Julie Toews: It is.

José Cardenas: And then we have a picture of the Scottsdale campus, and then we've got some pictures that we'll just run as we're talking of the students. That's your campus. Right?

Julie Toews: Mm-hmm.

José Cardenas: So the curriculum is something that has attracted some strong support, people like Craig Barrett. The former chairman of Intel chairs your board. What is it that you think appeals to the business community?

Julie Toews: Well, I think the business community has realized for a while that American kids are unprepared to compete not only in the American market but in the global market. You find a lot of businesses actually looking outside of the United States to hire, because those students are better prepared than our own. So I think there's -- Craig Barrett's interest in Basis is really an investment back into school.
José Cardenas: There's obviously a different demographic in your school John. Talk a little about that.

John Hillis: The demographic in our school is different than Tucson. It tends to reflect people that live in Scottsdale. We have people from Nyssa, Tempe, and Central Phoenix. We've got maybe 25-30% Asian and obviously predominantly white. It's different in Tucson.

José Cardenas: In Tucson, as I understand, your incoming senior class is 41% Hispanic.

Julie Toews: 41% Hispanic. I'm proud to say that six have become national Hispanic scholars, which is a tremendous achievement. In the past, we've seen national Hispanic scholars from our schools go to Harvard and Williams College and MIT, for example. Those students are heavily recruited. We have a lot of colleges and universities come to our relatively small campus to recruit our students, and one of the reasons is that we have a large number of Hispanic students.

José Cardenas: Let's talk about the criteria for the three rankings. We said a little bit in the intro about the "Newsweek" criterion. It's about graduation rates.

Julie Toews: "Newsweek," there are six factors. It used to be much simpler and is hard for me to keep straight now. It's number of exams given and, in addition to that, performance of those exams and graduation rate, college matriculation. And what else?

José Cardenas: And what were the criteria that got you the ranking as the toughest school in the country in the "Washington Post?"

Julie Toews: It's very simple, and in fact it's a little bit crude. When I talk to people, I say we don't do what we do for the rankings. It's just icing on the cake. "The Washington Post" just takes the number of A.P. exams that we gave -- and, by the way, we require A.P. exams and pay for all of them, and we require them of all students. It's just the number of exams we gave divided by the number of kids.

José Cardenas: Advanced placement exams?

Julie Toews: That's right. Those are scored one through five, and then college universities can choose to award college credit for those. A lot of times, when our kids leave to go to a public university, they enter at sophomore status.

José Cardenas: Finally we had the "U.S. News and World" ranking. That's where you guys switched places?

Julie Toews: No. Scottsdale didn't appear in that one.

John Hillis: We were a year behind. We didn't have enough graduates to qualify.

José Cardenas: On that one, though, what were the criteria?

Julie Toews: The first one was how the students did in the context of their state. It was especially relative with what would be expected in their context, in their locale. The second part is how well we serve the least privileged students in the state, including black, Hispanic, and the low-income students. The last part is performance on A.B. and A.P. exams. And, on that part, we scored six.

John, we've got six schools right now. Talk about what we can expect in the future in terms of other Basis schools.

John Hillis: Well, we started in 1988 with Tucson, and then Scottsdale opened. In 2010, we opened Otto Valley. Last year, we opened for Chandler, another one in Peoria, and one in Flagstaff. So they are just coming to the end of their first year. Next year, we're going to open the lab school in Tucson and open a skill in central Phoenix just on the 51 and Cactus. We're also going to open a campus in D.C. So it's exciting times. It really is. Being as good as we are, we have to probably prove that this is a great school regardless of what city we open in.
José Cardenas: And are you referring there to the general perception that schools in Arizona aren't that good? Does that impose a higher burden, do you think?

John Hillis: I don't necessarily think so, but at the same time you can't understand when you look at funds, for example, for skills and the low amount of funding that Arizona skills get. You have to obviously anticipate that it's going to be quite difficult. If you open a skill in Washington, D.C., for example, I would imagine the funding you're going to get is probably twice, maybe even two and a half times, what a child's education is arguably worth in Arizona. We prove just how successful the Basis model is, the philosophy that we have, and the curriculum that we've introduced.

José Cardenas: Well, congratulations to both of you on the success of your schools and the whole Basis project, and thanks for joining us on "Horizonte."

Both: Thank you so much.

John Hillis:Head of School, BASIS Scottsdale; Julia Toews:Head of School, BASIS Tucson;

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