An Academic Dynamo Under Stress
Budget Cuts, Faculty Turnover Test Montgomery Blair's Math-Science Magnet

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

The tangle of knobs and wires suggested trade school. But this was mathematical physics, taught to seniors at Montgomery Blair High School by invitation only. James Schafer's students were building resistor-capacitor circuits, a test of differential equations they had solved two days earlier.

It had gone better on paper. At one table, a capacitor blew with a loud pop. Smoke rose from another corner. This was, Schafer mused, "the smell of learning."

For 20 years, some of the top math and science minds in the country have passed through the Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet at Blair High in Silver Spring. But there's one question even the sharpest students cannot yet answer: Will this overachieving program remain a powerhouse in a time of budget cuts, teacher turnover and emerging competition?

Founded in 1985 to invigorate an under-performing school, the Blair magnet has far surpassed the goals of its architects. With 400 students on a campus of more than 2,700, the program produces more winners of science and math prizes than any other in the Washington region, save the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. The magnet has yielded a stream of Intel Science Talent Search finalists, presidential scholars and winners of national "olympiads" in biology, physics and math. All of this success has helped Blair become a destination school.

"I've never actually met this many people who want to get the highest grade in the class all the time," said Sneha Kannan, 16, a senior, who is researching a polymer that delivers drugs directly to cancer cells. "I like being with kids who like to learn as much as I do."

But budget cuts last year pared the faculty from 18 to 14. The remaining teachers were asked to take an extra class. Four veteran teachers left, some in protest. A fifth died. The magnet had never had such churn.

Success hinged on a cadre of teachers who wrote courses in thermodynamics, artificial intelligence and plate tectonics from scratch and who ran the program day to day with little input from administrators. Now most are gone, and newer teachers have less time for the collaborative zeal that has defined the magnet. Former faculty and alumni formed a foundation last year with the motto "Keep a special program special."

"The attrition of really qualified teachers is more than a bit worrying," said Louis Wasserman, a 2008 Blair magnet graduate now at the University of Chicago.

"Teachers have more classes, so they're not around as much," said computer science teacher Lola Piper, the last of the original faculty. "I don't feel like we have a program per se. We're just a bunch of teachers teaching smart kids."

There is another challenge: Poolesville High School's math-science magnet program opened in fall 2006, drawing students from northern Montgomery. Until then, Blair had drawn from the entire county. Applications to Blair's program have fallen by nearly half. Previously, the admission rate was about one in eight; now it is one in four. Applicants, who must take Algebra I by eighth grade, are screened through a process that takes into account test scores, grades and teacher recommendations.

School system officials, Blair Principal Darryl Williams and magnet director Dennis Heidler said there has been no decline in the program. Among this year's seniors, officials said, Jonathan Gootenberg was named one of four top student biologists in the nation last year. Gootenberg and Kannan were named Maryland's top Advanced Placement students this year in math and science. Edward Gan made the 24-student U.S. Physics Team as a junior last year. Seven seniors have been admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The program is absolutely, completely fantastic," said Tom Cohen, a physicist, who has a son in the magnet. The curriculum remains "at a ridiculously high level for a high school."

School leaders want to spread the word about newcomers such as Schafer. Just 28, the physics teacher came to the magnet two years ago, not from a nationwide search but from across the building, in the science department. He guided Gan to the national physics team.

The magnet was designed to be unique in the county school system. The faculty, empowered by longtime principal Phil Gainous, fashioned a curriculum with none of the rehash found in most high school courses. Smart students didn't have to learn the same thing twice.

At lunch, magnet students often can be found playing bridge or working crossword puzzles. "Most of us need to do something with our hands," joked senior David Edelstein as he shuffled and reshuffled a deck one day in the cafeteria.

Blair's magnet has never been as dominant regionally as Thomas Jefferson, a program four times as large that draws from six Northern Virginia school systems. But the Blair magnet looms large in Montgomery. This year's Intel contest produced one semifinalist each from Gaithersburg, Walter Johnson and Thomas S. Wootton high schools, two from Walt Whitman High School -- and 12 from Blair. It took two minivans to carry them to the county government center for a ceremony March 3.

Afterward, at a Rockville diner, students passed around a slice of apple pie, which one of them had never tasted. They talked of programming and pickup lines, vegetarianism and the rules of cricket.

Back at school, buzz was spreading in Bob Donaldson's origins of science class. Five seniors had just been named semifinalists for the national physics team. (Thomas Jefferson had eight, the most in the country. It was also the only school this year with two students among the 10 Intel winners.)

It was time to dance. Students gathered in concentric circles, joined hands and bobbed around the room to music from the film "Zorba the Greek," a moment of release near the end of a long day, getting them in the mood to study the scientific theories of the Greek philosophers. The dance accelerated, then ended. Students collapsed into their seats. Someone opened a window.

"My own feeling," Donaldson told the winded teens, "is that every educated person in the world should know how to prove the Pythagorean theorem."

The gauntlet was down. A volunteer was chosen. Senior Frank Wen, 18, walked to the board, wiped it clean with his sleeve, and produced a square, four triangles and a few lines of math to prove the ancient statement A squared plus B squared equals C squared. It was also proof, if one were needed, that the Blair magnet could still produce educated people.

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