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Finance: Inside the best public school in America — a charter school that feeds prodigies into the Ivy League

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What it's like to attend BASIS Scottsdale, the best public high school and charter school in America.

BASIS Scottsdale, a charter school in Arizona, is the best public high school in America.

Its founding dates back nearly 20 years, when two economists struggled to find a school that could provide a rigorous education for their daughter. They started a charter school in Tucson with the belief that the goal of a great education should be to provide students with limitless opportunities. A second high school opened in the affluent suburb of Scottsdale in 2003.

In 2017, four out of the top five public schools — according to a ranking from US News & World Report — are all run by BASIS Educational Group LLC, a for-profit corporation.

Charter schools are public schools that are privately run, either for-profit or not. Their supporters see the schools as providing a leg up for underserved students who lack access to a personalized education, while critics claim that charter schools snatch away limited resources from other public schools.

Polarizing as they may be, charter schools have a track record of success. Business Insider spent the day at BASIS Scottsdale to see what makes it the best in the nation.

There are nearly 7,000 charter schools in the US, and most are mission-driven. Some target gifted or high-risk kids.

Source: Education Week

The mission of BASIS charter schools is to produce top students who graduate with some of the highest test scores in the nation and go on to best ranked colleges and universities.

And BASIS Scottsdale does it better than any public high school in America.

In 2017, US News & World Report named BASIS Scottsdale the best public school in the US. The annual ranking is based on the number of Advanced Placement tests taken as well as performance on those tests for graduating seniors, and other criteria. Critics argue that this type of list doesn't use enough measures of success and gives charter schools an unfair edge.

My day started in eighth-grade chemistry with Ms. Cooney, where students were studying the three-dimensional structures of a molecule. She said it can be hard to visualize.

So Ms. Cooney turned part of the lesson into a yoga practice. "What's your bond angle?" she said, striking a pose that resembled a molecule's geometry. Her students giggled.

Over the last decade, BASIS has expanded its offerings to include kindergarten through 12th grade. Graduates of its primary schools are given priority for spots at the charter network's 15 high schools across Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington, DC.

(The rest of the students are plucked from a lottery.)

Kristen Jordison, head of school at BASIS Scottsdale, said it's "not impossible" but very difficult to enter a BASIS high school without having completed eighth grade at a BASIS middle school.

All BASIS students graduate high school with a minimum of seven AP courses and six AP exams. There are very few Honors and no standard college prep level classes offered.

When economists Michael and Olga Block started BASIS, they looked to AP courses and exams as a barometer for how well they were doing their jobs.

Jordison, who previously worked as executive director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, a governing body of charter schools, said the tests give BASIS an "outside benchmark against the rigor and quality" of its classes. That feedback is especially important at a charter school, because it is not held to the same state rules as a traditional public school. For example, charter school teachers do not need to meet state certification requirements under Arizona law.

A clear focus on the AP exam changes the way that some teachers teach. Plenty of students dread a part of the AP US history exam called the "DBQ" — an essay that asks students to analyze documents and develop an argument. But Mr. Molk's students practice just that.

In Mr. Molk's AP US history class, students received a range of primary source materials and split into groups so that each student had a unique document. They discussed the materials and outlined an argument together — a rehearsal of what they would be asked to do on the exam.

The pressure to achieve can be overwhelming in an environment where every student has brought their A game. Teachers try to mitigate this by having students teach one other.

Starting in fourth grade, students receive 30 math problems for homework every night. Nearly every math class begins with students calling out the problems they need help understanding; their peers take to the white board to show how they found the answer.

Self-reliance is an important part of a BASIS education. Students are given a planner, called their "communications journal," to record grades and assignments.

Jordison said the most common complaint she hears from parents is that teachers don't post grades online where parents can see them.

"We're not trying to eliminate access between the home and the school," Jordison said. "We want students to be in control of their learning. By having them write in the communications journal, that does give them the responsibility of being a liaison between school and home."

Charter schools have a reputation for cherry-picking students during admissions in order to produce the top test scores and bolster their place in the national school rankings.

Because charter schools are publicly funded, they can't legally screen kids for acceptance. But there are ways around open-enrollment laws, according to critics.

The BASIS charter school network opened its first outposts in affluent, mostly white areas — including Chandler, Oro Valley, and Peoria, Arizona — where it became a magnet for high-performing students from local districts. Forty percent of Scottsdale households make more than $100,000 per year, while the median household income for the state was half that in 2015. Research has shown that children from affluent families typically do better in school.

Low-income families may be at a disadvantage for sending their kids to BASIS, because the school does not provide busses to campus. The school only recently started a free-lunch program.

Students come from all over to attend BASIS, even though enrollment is determined by a lottery. The waitlist at BASIS Scottsdale has about 1,000 names, according to Jordison.

I had a chance to mingle with students in "college counseling class," where seniors work on their college applications and explore financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Devika S. and Vanessa J. came to BASIS Scottsdale for different reasons.

Shenoy, who was dressed up for an admissions interview with a Harvard alum later that day, lived in Singapore until the fifth grade. When she arrived in Arizona, her parents wanted to send her to a school that would keep pace with the "academic rigor" that she faced abroad.

Jones went to a public elementary school in Scottsdale until one day, she came home crying and begged her mother, "Can you please put me in a harder school?"

"BASIS doesn't pick its students, the students pick BASIS," said Miguel, a senior.

Like many of his peers, Miguel was drawn to the school because of its challenging curriculum.

He and his friends said they've seen former classmates move onto other public schools because they wanted more time for extracurricular activities or a "traditional" high school experience.

Students I spoke with agreed that anyone can succeed at BASIS if they put the work into it. "It's pretty easy to be molded into a sense of complacency at BASIS if you rely on intelligence too much, because eventually everything catches up to you," said Eric, a senior.

Eric said he "wasn't a brainiac" before he transferred from a local public school to BASIS Scottsdale.

Now Eric volunteers as a peer-to-peer tutor. He said there's a "support network that's available to [any student who] goes looking for it."

At lunchtime, students poured into the courtyard to hang out with friends or get a head start on homework.

Students can expect one to four hours of homework a night.

According to Jordison, BASIS continues to be "unapologetically rigorous" in the amount of homework it assigns, so long as the work offers a meaningful reinforcement of the material.

After talking with more students, I learned that their favorite teachers are the ones with a deep connection to their subject matter. Math teacher Marizza Bailey knows her stuff.

Bailey began her teaching career with a master's degree in pure mathematics and a PhD in arithmetic geometry. BASIS teachers typically have degrees in the fields they teach.

When Bailey tells people she works at BASIS, they write it off as a school for geniuses. "They're normal kids, they're not all brilliant," she said. "They just want to learn."

In the final few periods of the day, I dropped into classes focused on the liberal arts. A senior in the 2D painting class tapped into his creative side with a magnificent self-portrait.

The orchestra, largely made up of violinists, practiced a piece of music.

Though the average BASIS student takes 14 AP exams over four years, students I spoke with said doing extracurricular activities is still important for college admissions.

During an after-school meeting of the Science Bowl, an older student quizzed his peers on a range of math and science questions. Students buzzed in with the answers to multiple-step algebra problems before I had time to jot down the questions in my notebook.

BASIS Scottsdale offers 42 clubs, including speech and debate, newspaper, and basketball, though Jordison admits students don't come to BASIS for the superior athletics.

With its aggressive curriculum, emphasis on testing, and mountains of homework, BASIS Scottsdale isn’t for everyone.

But Bailey, the math teacher, has learned "if you hold students to a high bar, they will actually perform better. They may not reach the bar, but they're pushing their potential to more than what they thought they could do."

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