At BASIS San Antonio, Intellectual Engagement is the Norm


“What are the consequences of cultural isolation?”

That’ a pretty serious question. I heard it asked during a sixth grade world history class while on a tour of BASIS San Antonio school where a diverse group of students were bouncing out of their chairs, hands in the air, vying for the opportunity to answer the question.

“Lack of innovation?” one child offered.

“You’re right, but explain that better,” said instructor Adrian Gallegos.

A few of the kids gave intellectually stimulating answers, along with a few from left-field. Meanwhile, Gallegos rolled them into the discussion, plowing ahead to what would become a white board filled with key words and phrases to guide their study of Hellenic culture.

Adrian Gallegos leads his World History class at BASIS San Antonio.

“A genuine sense of wonder is something we espouse,” said BASIS San Antonio Head of School Tiffany O’Neill.

So they hire passionate teachers like Gallegos. BASIS teachers are required to hold a degree and credential in their subject matter. Some are career educators, some are straight out of college or grad school, and some are professionals from another field. The philosophy, which seems to be holding true, is that expert teachers bring contagious excitement about their subject matter.

“When (teachers) are excited, I’m excited,” said eighth grader Morgan Teel.

Right now, BASIS San Antonio’s Medical Center campus houses grades 5-8, with plans to grow into high school as the 8th-graders progress. A second campus will open near North Star Mall this fall. The charter school will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for is northern campus this Saturday, March 29 at 11 a.m. at the new school site, 318 E. Ramsey Rd. Eventually, school administrators would like to see a K-4 school in San Antonio, where the content experts like those in the upper schools would teach alongside certified elementary school teachers.

The BASIS chain started in Arizona. When it was ready to expand, Texas was the next logical frontier because of the state’s charter-friendly education laws.

“They allow us to run our schools the way we’ve had success running them,” O’Neill said.

Unfortunately, business as usual at BASIS, however successful, does not sit well with all families. Kish Russell, who son is a student at BASIS, has faced mounting frustrations with school administration over transparency regarding fees and accountability.

“I do know families who have pulled out (of BASIS) because the fees were driving them nuts,” Russell said, who reached such a stalemate with school leadership after she took her concerns to the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The administration has clarified its position in light of Russell’s appeal to the Texas Education Code. At BASIS, small fees accumulate, and are charged to an online account for each family. The fees – which include locker rental ($5), novels for the students to purchase and annotate, and Communication Journals ($10 and a vital part of BASIS academia) – are not allowed to be “mandatory” according to the Texas Education Code. While BASIS explains that these fees are technically optional, Russell claims that they are presented to the students as necessities, handed out without explanation of the cost or how to have that cost waived.

How do you have the cost waived? Apply for financial aid. For some parents this seems extreme in light of the small fees, and makes families feel more inclined to just pay the fee rather than deal with the application process. Students can also provide their own notebooks for Communication Journals, and they can choose not to use a locker. They can provide their own copies of novels, too. While this has all been explained now, Russell claims these options were never presented to students or parents before the charges were incurred.

When Russell felt that she was not getting anywhere with school administration on another issue, she wanted to appeal to the board. This proved harder than she anticipated. BASIS board meeting notices are posted 72 hours in advance, in compliance with minimum requirements of Texas Open Meetings Act, and happen at different times every month. Two board members live in Arizona and two in Texas. Parents must be vigilant if they want access to board trustees. To avoid student distraction, parents are also not allowed to observe their children’s classes, per school policy. For Russell, this lack of accessibility is unacceptable.

BASIS schools are nonprofits managed by a for-profit educational management firm, BASIS.ed. So if BASIS San Antonio sounds like a business, that’s because it’s run like one, which has drawn a fair amount of criticism. Board trustees are not elected, and with that goes some of the accountability for public engagement, but it also helps avoids some of the crippling politics that plagues inner city school districts. BASIS has its “secret sauce” in curriculum and methodology and they aren’t keen to share it. Their product is the academic results produced by their students.

BASIS San Antonio 8th-graders, and Morgan Teel.

At BASIS, success is measured by the highest standards of rigor available.

By 11th grade, all students are on course to be at AP level in all subjects. While they do prepare students for the STAAR, the standardized test BASIS considers more indicative of their performance is the OECD Test for Schools. Using this international comparison tool, BASIS Tucson ranks among the best in the world. BASIS San Antonio students are too young to take the test, but they are following the same approach that worked in Tucson.

“Public schools set the standard at the STAAR. BASIS sets the bar above,” said Teel, who came from a traditional public school.

At BASIS, students are free to accelerate as much as they can, without bumping into a brick wall of insufficient curriculum.

“Our teachers are equipped to go all the way in keeping up with our students,” O’Neill said.

“You can have a conversation about something they won’t be teaching you for four or five more years, but it’s just so interesting,” said Carson Harris, another eighth grader who came from a BASIS school in Arizona.

While many have speculated that schools like BASIS “skim” top performing students out of public schools using entrance exams, O’Neill claims that this is not true. Students are tested only for math placement. When they enter in the fifth grade, students fall along a spectrum of academic performance. But the expectation is they will learn voraciously. Everyone is held to the same standard.

“Even if you’re not some off the charts genius, the teachers’ goal is to give you what you need to be successful,” Harris said.

And every sixth-grader takes chemistry.

David Calhoun’s sixth-grade chemistry class at BASIS San Antonio.

Many consider BASIS to be a STEM school, because of it’s heavy focus in the sciences. O’Neill says that this is really a misnomer. BASIS kids get more science because biology, chemistry, and physics are taught as separate subjects (like English, history, and math) starting in sixth grade. This approach gives students more science exposure but those subjects are not emphasized more strongly than liberal arts subjects, according to O’Neill.

Academics are undoubtedly the primary concern at BASIS schools. Even physical education and art have an academic focus.

Responsibility is also a big part of life at BASIS.

BASIS students are expected to keep track of their own school work and performance. There is no online system for parents to check grades and assignments. Each cohort (there are about five per grade level) has representative “buddies,” students who keep track of assignments and calendars. When a student is absent, they can call the front office for a report of what they missed, left by the buddy.

For those in the teaching profession, a few things should pop out here. BASIS teachers spend less time administrating, less time assigning and re-assigning and doling out make-up work. Instead, they are teaching. Apparently, this is appealing. When BASIS first opened they had 182 applicants for the single English teaching position.

My last stop as I left campus was sixth grade chemistry. While teacher David Calhoun generated a vortex of energy at the front of the top-notch lab, students deftly navigated chemical equations. It didn’t take long for me to be thoroughly intimidated by these perfectly ordinary kids, and totally impressed by the guy at the front of the classroom.

*Featured/top image: Basis San Antonio entrance. Courtesy photo.

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