In a school inside a former IBM office building in San Jose, California, students in grades five through 12 take on some of the most rigorous classes offered at any American grade school.
Each student at Basis Independent Silicon Valley takes a minimum of six Advanced Placement courses and completes their graduation requirements before senior year, when they embark on capstone classes and independent research. Many go onto top colleges like Stanford and Cornell.
In class, kids develop a mastery of all things STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And for some students, the school could be just a stepping stone on their way to becoming the next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg.
Basis was built by a pair of economists, Michael and Olga Block, who struggled to find a school that would provide a rigorous education for their daughter. They opened a charter school in Tucson, Arizona, in 1998 with the belief that the goal of a great education should be to provide students with limitless opportunities.
Business Insider spent a day at BISV to see what it’s like to attend.
When students at Basis Independent Silicon Valley tell their friends from other schools where they attend, the most common refrain is “Why would you do that to yourself?”
BISV is known for holding students to high standards. Most classes are based on the AP curriculum, and there are few honours and no lower-level classes offered.
The school’s founders believed that they could cherry-pick “the best practices from the best education systems around the world” and the result would be a generation of students who could compete at the international level, said Basis Independent’s CEO, Ian Block.
Tuition at BISV is $US27,800 a year for grades five through 12.
In 2016, ninth-graders at BISV who took a worldwide exam had higher test scores in maths, reading, and science than the averages of 15-year-olds in China, Korea, and Singapore.
The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is an exam given every three years that measures 15-year-olds in 72 countries.
In 2016, the ninth-grade class at BISV participated in a similar exam administered by the same organisation behind PISA, the OECD Test for Schools, to benchmark their performance.
When Basis compared its students’ scores on the 2016 test with international students’ scores on the 2015 PISA, the data showed that BISV students tested above their peers.
It’s unclear how the performance of BISV students compares with that of students at other private schools, or even at other schools in the Basis network. Private schools are not required to share data for school rankings.
When Basis was looking to branch out of charter schools and build private schools, the school network saw a demand for its brand of academic rigour in Silicon Valley.
San Jose has seen massive population growth since the tech boom of the 1990s, but the number and variety of schools in the area had not caught up by 2014, Block said.
“People who choose our schools want a great education for their students,” said Block, who oversees the private – or “independent” – Basis schools. He’s the nephew of Michael Block, the founder.
Today, Basis operates seven private schools and 24 charter schools across the globe.
“Oftentimes families will see something in our program that they’re familiar with,” Block said. Students I spoke with said many of their parents are immigrants who were attracted to Basis because it reminded them of their schooling in countries like China and India.
Assessment is at the core of everything Basis does. In my first class of the day, seventh-grade biology students had a powwow to discuss a recent “pre-comp” exam.
All students take a pre-comp exam halfway through the year and a comprehensive exam at the end so Basis can measure their performance against other students at the school.
The tests cover everything they have learned so far — and these students said they felt confident.
BISV bills itself as a liberal arts program, though it piles on the STEM requirements.
Basis schools require students to take high-school-level maths in middle school and begin taking chemistry, physics, and biology as separate science classes in sixth grade.
In a sixth-grade chemistry class, students tested chemical elements over a Bunsen burner to see what colours they burned. Then they deduced what “mystery elements” might be there.
Mark Ryan, a chemistry teacher, said teachers outside of the Basis network say he’s crazy for using Bunsen burners with sixth-graders, but he tells them, “They can handle it.”
Students told me their favourite teachers are the ones with a deep connection to their subject matter. Most Basis high-school teachers have advanced degrees in their fields.
After completing their graduation requirements by the end of 11th grade, seniors dig deeper into the fields that interest them through seminar-style electives called capstone classes.
I popped into a Biology of Cancer capstone class where students tested different sunscreens in live yeast samples to measure their ability to protect.
High-school students can expect three to four hours of homework each night. All Basis students receive a planner, called a “communications journal,” to record assignments.
BISV is surprisingly low-tech given its location in the heart of Silicon Valley.
I didn’t see anyone using a tablet or phone, and laptops were sparse.
Some schools use software to scale personalised education — an increasingly popular learning style that tailors lessons to students with different ability levels. But critics argue that when technology replaces human instruction, it comes at the cost of learning.
“I think we see technology as a tool; we don’t necessarily see it as the solution in and of itself,” Block said. “What really makes our classroom work is the teacher.”
I had a chance to mingle with high-school students during lunch. They said BISV aimed to provide a well-rounded education grounded as much in the humanities as it is in STEM fields.
But at home, a different message comes in loud and clear: Success is getting a job in tech.
One student said he came from a family of engineers who told him that if he studied computer science, he would have job security for life.
After taking a class in anatomy at BISV, he discovered a love of medicine and is planning to pursue the field after high school.
Another student said her parents, who work in STEM fields, told her she could study theatre or the arts – they just wouldn’t pay for her college tuition.
The students I spoke with told me most of their parents are immigrants who work in tech.
Toby Walker is the head of school at BISV and a former history teacher. He said students were “acutely aware of where we are geographically.” The day I visited, a computer-science class was on a field trip to Google’s headquarters.
But he doesn’t define success by technological literacy. “I want my students to be able to go to a dinner party and speak eloquently across a wide variety of subjects,” Walker said.
That’s a skill most tech workers would agree can only help them in life.
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