Inside Basis, the acclaimed school network behind the country's leading high schools

It's rare to see high schoolers cheering and applauding while in the classroom – especially for a math problem. But Basis Independent in Silicon Valley isn't your average school. It's a $28,000-per-year private school that's a stone's throw from some of the world's leading tech companies.

It's also part of a charter and private school network that is so successful it has captured the top five spots on U.S. News and World Report's list of the best high schools, reports CBS News' Danielle Nottingham. 

AP calculus teacher Billy Thomas is a lifelong "Price Is Right" fan and a one-time contestant. He plays game show host to teach complex math to students as young as 12.

"I can hand out a review packet and we can go through it and sometimes we do that, but the game show gives them this idea of the pressure of the test … and more so than that -- the chance to realize that learning can be fun," Thomas said. 

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AP calculus teacher Billy Thomas 

CBS News


Students at Basis Independent Silicon Valley are required to take at least seven AP courses, beginning as early as eighth grade. They must take six AP tests to graduate, but some take as many as 20.

"When I first started I thought they were crazy, I mean I really did. I was like you can't teach an 8th grader or 7th grader to do AP calculus and what I discovered was if you put kids up to a challenge you will be surprised how high they can go and how much they can meet that challenge," Thomas said.

For economists Dr. Michael and Olga Block, the average American school was not challenging enough for their daughter. That's why they opened a charter school in 1998 focused on serious subject training.

That first Basis location in Tucson, Arizona, has grown to a chain of 31 charter and private schools. Teachers are experts in their subjects, but not necessarily licensed educators. Kindergartners learn Mandarin and "engineering," and 8th graders experiment in chemistry under the supervision of a teacher with a PhD. 

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Students at Basis Independent Silicon Valley

CBS News

 Toby Walker is the head of schools at Basis Independent Silicon Valley.

"We do rank our students' international performance ... and our students here at this school are routinely outperforming the highest-ranking students in the highest performing regions in the world in math, reading and science," Walker said.
 
One of those students is 9th grader Anna Subanna, who said she has about three hours of homework per night, which she considers "average." On top of that, she's in three clubs, dances 12 hours per week and volunteers for three hours on the weekend. Still, she said she has time to do what she wants.  
 
Anna's mom, Srividhya Gopalan, is the director of engineering at a cybersecurity company.

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 Toby Walker, head of schools at Basis Independent Silicon Valley

CBS News

"I have two kids. My first kid graduated out of Basis, my second one is going to Basis. If I had a third, that kid would go to Basis, too, for sure," Gopalan said.
 
Although the focus there is on STEM education, pens and pencils are preferred and cellphones banned. Basis also refuses to rank students, which means no class valedictorians.

"I think that for us it's important that in the classroom students can be focused on engaging with the material, getting to know their teachers and really setting expectations for themselves and surpassing them rather than competing with their peers," Toby Walker said. 
 
What would Walker say to those who think the curriculum is too intense? Talk to the students.

"Spend time in the building. We really focus on making sure that these students are supported. That as they engage with what is a very rigorous curriculum, they get the safety net that they need," Walker said.
 
The curriculum is why a Basis charter school teacher said she filed a complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. She said the school told her it did not modify its curriculum for students with disabilities.
 
Basis said it takes "very seriously the obligation to serve all student populations, including students with disabilities" and accepted a voluntary resolution with "a policy review and the opportunity for additional training."

Back in Silicon Valley, math teacher Billy Thomas said that no matter how challenging the subject, any child can succeed with the right support.

"You can't do that in most schools across the country. And to be a part of that, to be a part of educating kids at this high level -- I really can't imagine anything more fulfilling."