Montgomery Blair High School scaled a remarkable academic height this past school year when six of its seniors were named among the 40 finalists in the nationwide Intel Science Talent Search (formerly the Westinghouse), the oldest and most prestigious competition of its kind. This was just the latest in a long string of achievements by students in Blair's science-math-computer science magnet program.
Since its creation in 1985, to promote desegregation at the 2,500-student school in Silver Spring, the magnet has sent more than 1,000 graduates on to the nation's top universities and has enhanced Blair's reputation as one of the most dynamic schools in the state. Eileen Steinkraus, a former earth science teacher, is coordinator of the magnet, which includes 400 students and 18 faculty. She sat down with Magazine staff writer Peter Perl recently to discuss the successes and challenges of programs for the gifted and talented.
Q: Just how smart are these kids? How selective is the magnet?
A: Last year we had 800 applicants for the 100 positions, so it is highly competitive. We have worked with other magnet programs and we have devised a test with mathematical reasoning, verbal reasoning and also critical thinking. We also ask them for a motivation statement, because one of the things we find is that it is not just ability, but the internal motivation really has to be there.
Q: What is the dropout rate?
A: It is very little. Usually, it is when a parent is transferred and a student has to move. Occasionally, we have a student who decides it is not for him, but not often.
Q: Can you give a couple of examples of magnet courses that are beyond normal high school courses?
A: We offer a second year of calculus, complex variables, linear algebra, discrete mathematics, software design, modeling and simulation graphics. And genetics, cell physiology, analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics. It's quite a bit . . . By their senior year, they are working on a major research project. They often work with a teacher-adviser and a mentor, an outside mentor. Actually, students are working, I think, at 18 different places this year: National Institutes of Health, University of Maryland, Army Research Lab, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Agriculture, the National Zoo, all over.
Q: If a kid may be a genius in math or science, how do you motivate them to make them well-rounded students? How do you prevent the program from just turning out geeks and nerds?
A: That is really important to us. We do some activities. We take students on field experiences, we take a trip to Virginia in 10th grade where they stay for three days to apply their marine biology and physics to the environment, but they are also away from home and get a kind of bonding experience with others and learn to interact. We do a great deal of teamwork and team projects where the students have to relate together. We want to develop some self-awareness and communication skills.
Q: How do you accomplish that?
A: One of the reasons we are so successful in Westinghouse and Intel is that we continually have students present to the class and to other students, to learn how important communication is. We talk about how you may make a great discovery, but if you can't communicate it so someone else understands it, it's not going to go anywhere. We encourage that also because they are with other [non-magnet] kids at Blair to relate to, in their PE class, and history, and English. And our kids are involved in a lot of school activities, clubs and teams.
Q: How do you select teachers for this program?
A: We try to stay on the cutting edge of computer science and technology, which is difficult because things change so fast. And we try to find teachers who . . . appreciate that they are going to be learning along with the students and they are not intimidated by that. If you are keeping on the cutting edge, you are not always going to know what the answers are. It is a challenge at times, particularly in computer science, to find people who are trained at the level we need, because they certainly can make a lot more money somewhere else. For a couple years, we had former magnet students who had graduated from college and were in a hiatus, before graduate school, and they taught here in computer science because we could not find people that were available. The biggest challenge is to find the knowledge level, combined with the philosophy that we teach.
Q: In selecting the students, what is the breakdown in race, ethnicity and gender?
A: Our effort is supposed to bring majority students into the school. But if we find in the testing and screening process very talented minority students, certainly they are welcome and they are invited to come. The breakdown is about 60 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic and African American. For gender, one of the things we find, and this is a nationwide problem, is that girls do not go on to higher-level physics and math, and particularly computer science. So we make an effort to recruit girls. We now have about 40 percent females. We actually have a 50 percent female applicant rate, but we don't accept as many.
Q: Are there too many demands on some of these kids? Too much pressure?
A: We have a lot of parent meetings and I talk to a lot of students, and we tell them, particularly juniors and seniors, "Don't take all AP and magnet courses. Enjoy your high school." But it is not us putting on the pressure. Part of why they are successful is that they have that level of motivation. Sometimes the parents say to me, "We don't know where it comes from. We don't care if they get B's." But there is some innate motivation there. Sometimes we will have parents who are very strict and they want all A's, and we work with the parents and say that is not necessary. But most of the pressure, if it is not parental-induced, is from their own sense of competition, and competing against themselves, being the best they can be.
Q: How do you measure the success of the program?
A: Before the magnet, there was middle-class flight of all races from Blair, parents, African American and white, who felt the school was not doing enough for their students. And that has definitely stopped. People want to come here. They want their students to be here, whether in the magnet or not.
Q: What is biggest problem confronting the magnet?
A: I worry about whether we are continuing to do the best for our students. Is there more we can do to help them become better people? Total people, rather than just their student parts. If we want to promote the concept that learning is a lifelong process, then we need to model that for our students.