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

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

It dates back nearly 20 years, to 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 and World Report — are all run by Basis Educational Group LLC, a for-profit corporation.

Charter schools are public schools that are privately run. Their supporters see them as providing a leg up for underserved students who lack access to a personalized education, while critics say they 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.

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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.

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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

In 2017, US News and 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 graduating seniors’ performance on those tests, among 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 could be hard to visualize.

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

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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.

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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Over the past 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.

Over the past 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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The rest of the students are plucked from a lottery.

Kristen Jordison, the head of school at Basis Scottsdale, says it’s “not impossible” but very difficult to enter a Basis high school without having completed eighth grade at a Basis middle school.

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

When the 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 was previously the executive director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, a governing body of charter schools, said the tests gave 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 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.

A clear focus on the AP exam changes the way 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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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 will 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.

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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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 use the whiteboard to show how they found the answers.

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 use the whiteboard to show how they found the answers.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

The homework for AP language and composition and AP literature on a whiteboard at Basis Scottsdale.Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Jordison says 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 to produce the top test scores and bolster their place in the national school rankings.

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

The Basis charter-school network opened its first outposts in affluent, mostly white areas — including the Arizona cities of ChandlerOro Valley, and Peoria — where it became a magnet for high-performing students from local districts.

Nearly 40% of Scottsdale households make more than $100,000 a 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 buses to campus. The school only recently started a free-lunch program.

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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, Jordison said.

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, Jordison said.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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.

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.

Vanessa and Devika, both graduating seniors at Basis Scottsdale, sitting in on the college counseling class.Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Devika and Vanessa came to Basis Scottsdale for different reasons.

Devika, 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.

Vanessa said she 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.

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

Miguel and Adi also sat in on the class.Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

He and his friends said they had 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.

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.

Adi, Landon, and Eric, all graduating seniors.Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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 says there’s a “support network that’s available” to any student who “goes looking for it.”

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

According to Jordison, Basis continues to be “unapologetically rigorous” in the amount of homework it assigns, so long as the work meaningfully reinforces the material.

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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.”

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."

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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.

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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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.

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.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Basis Scottsdale offers 42 clubs, including speech, debate, newspaper, and basketball, though Jordison acknowledges that students don’t come to Basis for the superior athletics.

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

But Bailey has learned that “if you hold students to a high bar, they will actually perform better.” She added: “They may not reach the bar, but they’re pushing their potential to more than what they thought they could do.”

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

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

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