20 minutes with Michael & Olga Block: The story behind worldwide school network BASIS

Olga and Michael Block (submitted photo)

On the 20-year anniversary of the first BASIS charter school, co-founders Olga and Michael Block appear to be in agreement: their vision of providing internationally-competitive education is crystal clear.

From personal anecdotes to annual school rankings, Mr. and Mrs. Block point to a successful network of schools providing quality education to students in a handful of states and foreign countries.

The two decade recipe for competitive education has simultaneously created a special family aspect for the Blocks, it appears, as the couple proudly noted four of their grandchildren will be in BASIS schools in different parts of the world next year.

Their invention is not the creation of a new school, the education entrepreneurs say, but the standards implemented within the curriculum.

“We invented the new way of how to manage schools and how to prepare the curriculum for schools,” Mrs. Block explained. “That’s our invention, that’s what makes us different and special.”

The grind to open schools wasn’t easy at first, Mr. and Mrs. Block contend. Weekdays were spent working in Tucson, while weekends were spent in Scottsdale planning their next school.

With schools around the country, in China, and plans to open more, Mrs. Block says she is still seeing the reality of her dream come to fruition even 20 years later.

(submitted photo)

In mid-April, Mrs. Block was attending a fundraiser in Tucson for her schools when a young lady from BASIS’s Oro Valley campus spoke about her classroom experiences.

“She was talking about how it was when she started at BASIS, what it gave to her, and how she felt about her education,” she recalled.

“We had passionate teachers, someone who we can admire, someone who’s way of teaching resonated with her — everything that we’re trying to reach. It was obvious that it was working. What I was dreaming 20 years ago is still happening.”

Mrs. Block and her husband founded BASIS Charter Schools in Tucson in 1998, before testing the educational waters here locally by opening a school in Scottsdale in 2003.

The couple says their Scottsdale location was instrumental in what became a growing network of schools across three states and internationally.

While Mrs. Block’s dream of creating quality education came from passion — an immigrant mother with a young daughter — her husband, Michael, says he came to it from a slightly different perspective.

Mrs. Block moved to the United States in 1996, when her daughter was 12-years-old.

“Because she didn’t speak any English I really had to participate,” Mrs. Block said of her daughter’s move to a new country.

“During that time I was also working as a researcher at the Goldwater Institute. The charter rule was very new, and Goldwater was very involved in promoting a new choice for students.”

Mrs. Block says she was fascinated with the new law.

“It combined my feeling that I could do better than what I was seeing around me,” she said. “We decided that we would try our way to create a quality education — a quality version of education.”

Then-University of Arizona economics professor, Mr. Block, says his passion to improve local education blossomed as he witnessed foreign students surpassing U.S. students in the classroom.

“Students outside of the United States did better than the best students educated in the United States. It was because the math and science education was much better outside of the U.S.,” he said.

“So we joined together, two separate motivations, one very personal and one more abstract, and decided we’ll build an American school that teaches at a level no-less than the best places in the world.”

Cream of the crop

The pursuit of quality education has earned BASIS schools a ranking in the top schools of the country for the past several years. Most recently the 2017 U.S. News & World Report ranking of high schools slotted BASIS schools into spots 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 out of 20,000.

“Our little network had five of the top 7, which is pretty amazing,” Mr. Block noted of 2017. BASIS Scottsdale is ranked No. 1 in the national rankings.

The Scottsdale campus opened just a few years after the Tucson campus, and was a personal challenge for the couple, they say.

“We decided to take the challenge and find at that time the best school district in Arizona, go in there and see if we can make a mark,” Mr. Block said.

“And we did. That gave us practice in expanding schools, and gave us exposure to a different group of parents in a high-income suburb.”

Mr. Block says they are also delivering on their promise to be competitive worldwide.

“There’s a test you can have given in your schools from Paris used to judge high school education around the world,” he explained. “We subject all 15-year-olds, every one of our schools last year scored above the highest scoring regions in the world.”

Since the start of their BASIS organization, the couple has opened 22 schools in Arizona, three in Texas, one in Washington D.C., and one coming soon in Louisiana. There are also BASIS Independent private schools in New York City, Silicon Valley and McLean, Virginia.

BASIS Global has two schools in China, and Mr. Block says the Chinese approached them to bring the educational entity to their country.
Next, a school is being planned in Prague, where Mrs. Block was born.

“My daughter is now actually living in the Czech Republic and has a son who is ready to enter BASIS,” Mrs. Block said. “That’s a reason we are now planning opening a school in Prague, a preschool and kindergarten next year, so my little boy will enter that one in 2021. So there is a family tradition that will continue over there.”

Mr. Block agreed with his wife, saying they each have their own locations for schools.

“Olga was born in Prague, and is bringing her American invention back to Prague. I was born in New York, and we now have two private schools in NYC,” Mr. Block said.

Two of their grandchildren are enrolled in early elementary school in New York, where the Block’s recently purchased a town home, and another grandchild is going to school at BASIS Oro Valley, where they have a home.

BASIS’ educational success over 20 years with its charter and private schools around the world has also been a business success for the couple. Recently, the Blocks donated $2.5 million to the BASIS Charter Schools Annual Teacher Fund, with the first installment paid last year. The monies are used to help BASIS retain, reward and recruit top teachers.

Success has also allowed Mr. Block, at the age of 76, to realize a lifelong dream of buying a multi-million dollar dream home in Manhattan, the place of his upbringing.

BASIS Scottsdale is at 10400 N. 128th St. (submitted photo)

Education is a profession

The couple built the school system from the ground up, recalling the hours spent driving from Tucson to Scottsdale on the weekends to have information and planning sessions with a tentatively-hired head of school in the early 2000s.

“Olga and I would regularly travel to Scottsdale on the weekends, we would bring books and go to Mustang Library,” Mr. Block said.

“Every Saturday have an information session, and we had tentatively hired a head of school, and she would commute on weekends and also be at these sessions. That was our whole opening team. We were the team, we did everything in the beginning.”

The goal behind BASIS schools has always been to bring their enterprise to different levels, Mrs. Block contends.

“We always believed that if this enterprise is financially successful and we are able to attract young people who have ambitions to succeed, not only professionally but financially and socially, we can bring this whole enterprise to different levels,” she said.

“I do honestly believe that pushing education into a charity category where everyone who works in education has to somehow classify their standard of living is very silly. Education is a profession.”

In 2009 the organization was restructured to provide governance of charters to Basis Schools Inc., a nonprofit entity, Mr. Block says, noting that the political temperament of charter schools still remains lukewarm.

“I must say that the reception and attitude of charter schools is not improving in terms of government and politics,” Mr. Block said. “The biggest restraint is shifting political winds, and I don’t know where exactly that is going to land. There is a lot of anti-charter sentiment that will restrict charter development outside of Arizona.”

Mr. Block says their independent schools have the same curriculum as their charter schools, but provide a little bit more customer service.

“They’re in places that running a charter school is more difficult,” he said, noting they have plans to keep expanding the independent schools.

The separation between real estate and education is important to the couple, they say, as both pointed out that they’re not in the real estate business.

“The separation I think from real estate is important,” Mr. Block said. “Charter management or education management is focused on clever real estate transactions, we’re out of that completely. Whatever success we have is based on educational curriculum that we do.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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