When Roberto Ramirez tells people in Baton Rouge where he works, he gets some puzzled looks.
“In Tucson, everyone knows about BASIS,” Ramirez said. “In a few years, people will be very familiar with BASIS here too.”
BASIS, short for Building Academic Success in School, runs some of Arizona’s highest performing public schools and its high schools routinely top national best-of lists. In the past decade, it has grown from two schools to a network of 23 charter and five private schools.
Ramirez is a 10-year veteran of this organization, which opened its first school in Tucson in 1998. In October, he was tapped to move 1,200 miles east to Baton Rouge to lead BASIS’s first school in Louisiana.
BASIS Baton Rouge is under construction and set to open in August. General contractor Buquet & LeBlanc of Baton Rouge is building the nearly $10 million, 40,000-square-foot primary school building. A new middle/high school facility will follow in the future. The school eventually plans grow to almost 900 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, though its first graduating class won’t be until 2027.
The school is being built on seven acres that Woman’s Hospital is leasing to BASIS for free. For months, the school has been running print and radio ads. In addition, the hospital has played host to weekly informational sessions.
Despite the buzz, BASIS has downscaled its initial enrollment projections. So rather than 450 students in kindergarten to sixth grade, it’s now expecting just 300 and 350 students in grades K-4. Kindergarten is the most popular and is filling up, but the upper grades have been tougher to fill, mostly because students are already in school somewhere else, Ramirez said.
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Shawn Gose first heard about BASIS years ago and she was immediately hooked.
She and her husband, Ty, have three boys, and her oldest, Grady, 5, is about to start kindergarten. Both parents grew up attending public schools in other states. But she had concerns about public schools in Baton Rouge after working in several of them years ago for a local nonprofit.
“I know there are great teachers in a lot of those schools but I also encountered some teachers who just hated their jobs,” Gose recalled.
BASIS, however, looked different. The more she learned, the more excited she got. The family is even moving across town to be closer to their new school.
Gose said she’s talked several parents into joining her. Among other things, she said, she likes that children will get ample recess and have two teachers per class.
“(BASIS) is easy to talk about. It’s not like I have to push it on anyone,” Gose said. “Everyone is so hungry for just a good school in Baton Rouge that’s free. You grab their attention very quickly.”
BASIS is using a 2011 Louisiana “corporate partnership” law, the first charter school to do so. Under that law, a corporate entity such as Woman’s Hospital can provide financial support to a charter school — in this case, the land BASIS is building on — and lay claim to up to half of the slots in the new school.
Stan Shelton, a senior vice president with Woman’s Hospital, said only about 20 of Woman’s more than 2,000 employees have applied so far and had their children admitted to BASIS, but he expects that number will grow over time.
Shelton said that for more than a decade the hospital has envisioned including a high-performing school on its the 200-acre campus, where the hospital relocated in 2012. The idea is that the school would be part of a 100-acre mixed-use development called Materra likely to start construction in 2019. In addition, the hospital plans to relocate its child care center onto its campus.
“There will be an opportunity for our employees to live, work, have child care from birth through preschool, and then have a school to attend all the way to 12th grade,” Shelton said.
One attraction is that unlike many magnet schools in Baton Rouge, BASIS requires no entrance exams or minimum GPA. To enroll, a BASIS student need only live within the boundaries of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
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East Baton Rouge Parish school leaders have expressed hope that BASIS will prove pleasing to residents of south and southeast Baton Rouge. These residents are targets of the recently revived St. George movement, which seeks to form a city and later a public school district in that part of the parish.
The new BASIS school is the only charter school located within the boundaries of the proposed city. If St. George eventually controls public schools in that area, BASIS would be one of those schools and it’s not clear what its fate would be.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Ramirez said. “Our focus would be to provide the best school we could regardless of politics.”
BASIS schools are unapologetically difficult. Students take Mandarin Chinese starting in kindergarten, and algebra and geometry starting in seventh grade. They start taking AP courses in eighth grade and have taken an average of 11 AP exams by the time they graduate.
Aspects of BASIS have inspired criticism. Its schools offer no public transportation. They educate relatively few special-education children compared to other public schools and even fewer children for whom English is a second language.
BASIS schools also have relatively few high school graduates compared to the number of children that start there.
In an essay last year addressing these and other criticisms, Peter Bezanson, CEO of BASIS.ed, said the bulk of the students that leave do so between eighth and ninth grades. He said such departures are “perfectly natural” for children finishing middle school grades, “especially in the choice-rich environments within which BASIS Charter Schools exist.”
Another sore spot is that only two of BASIS’ 23 charter schools provide federally subsidized free meals; many of its schools report having no poor children at all. At its poorest school, BASIS DC, located in the nation’s capital, only 17 percent of its students qualify for free lunch.
BASIS Baton Rouge is planning to offer federally subsidized free meals, but it has estimated that only 20 percent of its students in Baton Rouge would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast, a figure below almost every public school in the state.
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Bezanson has said that figure is not a goal, just an estimate. As part of its contract with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system signed last July, BASIS promises to “exercise reasonable efforts to recruit and enroll economically disadvantaged students” or risk corrective action up to having its contract revoked.
Ramirez said that while BASIS has very high expectations, it also offers ample help to its students: “BASIS is going to be rigorous and challenging in general, but with the support system we have in place, (students) will be ready.”