BASIS seeking to open charter schools in Baton Rouge, New Orleans: ‘We do not lower the bar,’ CEO says of the challenging schools

The head of an Arizona-based network of academically challenging schools with plans to start five more schools in Louisiana, starting in Baton Rouge in 2017, says his schools demand more from students than the vast majority of schools.

“We do not lower the bar,” said Peter Bezanson, chief executive officer of BASIS.ed, speaking slowly and emphatically to an audience Wednesday in Baton Rouge.

BASIS operates 25 schools. They are primarily in the United States, but last year, the organization opened its first school in China. They are mostly charter schools — public schools run by private organizations via contracts, or charters.

“We are really tuition-free schools with no admissions criteria,” he said.

The bar BASIS sets for its students is dauntingly high, as Bezanson sketched out for the packed Rotary Club of Baton Rouge luncheon crowd:

Algebra starts in sixth grade, and students have to take Advanced Placement calculus to graduate. Calculus as early as ninth grade is common.

In sixth grade, biology, chemistry and physics are all taught as separate subjects for three years.

Starting in sixth grade, student take year-end comprehensive exams they must pass, all of them, to avoid repeating the grade.

Mandarin Chinese is taught as early as kindergarten, and Latin is required in the fifth grade.

At least six Advanced Placement courses are required to graduate, and the average is 11, Bezanson said.

The results have been impressive.

In spring 2014, 15-year-olds from four of the oldest schools in the BASIS network, all located in Arizona, outscored students from the top nations in the world on the Program for International Student Assessment exam.

“If BASIS were a country, we’d be the highest-scoring country in the world,” Bezanson said.

Those results caught the attention of the nonprofit group New Schools for Baton Rouge, which has heavily recruited BASIS to come to the Pelican State. BASIS first announced its plans to come to Louisiana last April to a group of local business and community leaders visiting Phoenix and Tucson.

When BASIS opened its first school in Tucson in 1998, Arizona was something of the Wild West for the charter school movement, Bezanson recalled.

“If you had a pulse, if you breathed on a mirror and it fogged up, you could start a charter school,” he joked.

BASIS schools, however, soon stood out as some of the best in the state and later the entire country and did so “by any metric,” he said.

Since 2010, BASIS has been expanding rapidly across the country and soon will top the 17,000 mark in student enrollment.

Bezanson said the organization hopes to launch a K-12 school in fall 2017 in Baton Rouge, likely near downtown. It hopes to follow with a second Baton Rouge school in 2018 and then a third school in New Orleans in 2019.

All these new Louisiana schools would start with grades kindergarten to six and expand a year at a time after that until 12th grade. Bezanson, though, said kindergarten and first grade would be the largest initial grades.

BASIS plans to file a charter application by March 6, the deadline to open a new charter school in 2017 in Louisiana, and will submit its application to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. If rejected, it plans to appeal to the state.

While demanding, BASIS schools don’t leave students on their own.

“We don’t have a sink-or-swim mentality,” Bezanson said. “Rather, we offer hours and hours and hours of support.”

BASIS schools celebrate ethnic and intellectual diversity, Bezanson said, but he acknowledged that only its schools in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., draw from urban areas similar to Baton Rouge with significant numbers of racial minorities. In D.C., between 20 and 40 percent of the school’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. By comparison, 80 percent of East Baton Rouge students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Bezanson said the San Antonio and D.C. schools have been learning experiences for BASIS, with students requiring multiple attempts to pass tests, lots of extra time studying, with some repeating grades or leaving the schools.

The experiences there led BASIS to expand below fifth grade, its historic start point, all the way to kindergarten. The approach to the elementary school, however, is similar. Teachers who specialize in their subjects, rather than generalists, do the bulk of the teaching, which is not the norm in most elementary schools.

“We treat elementary students as if they were high school students,” he said.

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