TIt was incorrectly reported yesterday that the Blair Advisory Council voted against asking the Montgomery County school board to hold a hearing on alternatives suggested for Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. In fact, the council requested such a hearing, while opposing any plan to close the school.
Back in the innocent '50s, the major issue at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring was whether to erect floodlights over the sports stadium so more spectators could attend athletic events.
The Blair High of 1953 had a homogenous student body: white and mostly middle-class. At the time, Maryland schools were segregated by law; "racial balance" and "quality integrated education" were unspoken phrases. Montgomery County was smaller but growing, especially in the close-in suburbs, as the children of the postwar baby boom entered its public schools. As enrollments soared, new schools were built and old ones expanded. Blair, in fact, grew into a maze of eight attached buildings on 15 acres.
Today, there are still no floodlights over the stadium, but the aging complex of brick buildings is getting plenty of attention as it struggles to survive in a new age.
The world of Blair High School and Montgomery County in the 1980s is markedly different: school enrollments declining, minority percentages climbing, especially in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area from which the school draws its students. The progressive school board of the 1970s has given way to a conservative majority today.
And Blair, one of the oldest high schools in the lower county, has become a battleground on issues of diversity, racial balance and local autonomy.
In November, the board voted to send pupils from several elementary schools that have been feeding into Blair to other schools, but rejected its superintendent's suggestion that students from three mostly white schools from beyond the Beltway transfer to Blair. The net result in the fall will be to reduce the high school's current enrollment of 1,721 to 1,400 while increasing the percentage of minority students.
The turmoil of school closings and boundary changes threatens to leave the school shrunken in size even as its mixed population of blacks, Hispanics and Asians grows beyond its present 58 percent "minority." Blair advocates see this as "a slow death" making the school a vulnerable target for closure in coming years, as the minority percentage exceeds the "acceptable" level of 60 percent set by the board.
Unhappy over the prospects, Blair backers were further chagrined when the school board formally asked the superintendent to study the closing of Blair. Some students reacted by scrawling "Blair Forever" and "The Blair Gang" at their school and at two others that would replace their alma mater were it to close.
"It was kind of dumb," said Blair Principal Joseph S. Villani. "The way to keep your school open is not to deface it in order to proclaim your loyalty."
The Silver Chip, the school's outspoken student newspaper, reflected the students' dismay. "The treatment of Montgomery Blair has been especially shabby, and the suggestion that Blair should be closed is the final, demeaning injustice," its editorial page said.
"The staff is disconcerted, too," said Villani, "because they find it hard to accept the fact that people don't want to send their kids here. They think they're doing a good job. It's one of the facts of life that we are trying to live down a reputation based largely on myth and rumor and some dissatisfied customers you find anywhere."
Last week, while the teachers went about their business, parents, planners and board members were pondering the superintendent's report. Superintendent Edward Andrews had considered three options: closure, changing feeder school boundaries to increase numbers, especially of whites, and transforming Blair into a performing arts "magnet" school to draw white students, primarily, from other corners of the county. To the relief of Blair boosters, Andrews at least rejected closure.
Andrews championed the performing arts idea. Parents and teachers had advocated what they termed an "academic magnet," in reality a classic academic high school that would return Blair to its former ranking among the county's highest award winners of merit scholarships and other scholastic honors.
Board members reacted cautiously to the report, although a majority seemed inclined to support a "magnet" approach of some kind. "Let's face it," said Carol Wallace, a sometime swing vote on the seven-member board. "I'm a good Jewish momma. If my son could audition and be accepted, I wouldn't care where the school is located."
The board is scheduled to discuss the Andrews report Feb. 22, but no date has been set for action on it.
As the Blair community wondered what would happen next, the Montgomery planning board wrote a letter to the County Council and executive urging that the school remain open and be strengthened by boundary changes and additional academic programs. The very heart of Silver Spring was at stake, the board said. The county, anticipating economic growth near the elevated Metro station there, has spent $3.6 million improving the "streetscape."
"I see the Silver Spring revitalization really starting to bear fruit," said Norman Christeller, planning board chairman. "We feel the loss of Blair or allowing Blair to decline into oblivion would be very harmful. Blair is to Silver Spring what Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School is to Bethesda."
Not only the old business district, but its residential neighborhoods could change, according to Barbara Cantor, head of the Blair Advisory Council. "If the school is closed or the racial mix isn't made better, middle-class families will send their kids to private schools and only low-income kids will attend the public school," she said. "Neighborhoods will change, with a lot of young couples, both professionals, without children."
The changes in Blair are reflected in the aging yearbooks tucked away in the office of the school registrar.
It was a brand new school in 1935, with a graduating class of 59 and a "Blackface Orioles Roost" featuring, the yearbook said, "40 of our fairest in their shiny ebony splendor . . ." The original school, now a relic known as C Building, faced Sligo Creek and "gentle hills of green," an area now covered with apartment buildings on the opposite bank.
By 1950, students were eagerly looking forward to completion of the school's stadium. Fifteen years later, integration was a legal fact but the overwhelming white majority in the graduating class reflected the status quo in Silver Spring. With 949 members, the Class of 1965 was the largest in Blair's history and a peak year for the school, which had 2,900 students. National Merit winners numbered as many as 30, compared to one in l981, and more graduates attended prestige colleges. The 1970s brought the age of protest to Blair, and more minorities.
By 1981, ethnic diversity was a constant theme. The new "Blair Blazers," according to principal Villani, include Asian boat people and refugees from El Salvador.
Sending these students to schools further from their homes in Silver Spring, he suggests, could be traumatic "for kids who don't have a lot of roots."
Not everyone agrees with Villani. "There's a fine line between diversity and chaos, and I think Blair has gone over that line," said Marilyn Piety, the mother of four Blair graduates and an advocate of closure.
The school closings in the county have both brought communities together and torn them apart. In the process, proponents of closings in the lower county have been labeled racist and have lost friendships. Piety, an officer in her civic association, said some of her neighbors are "less willing or desirous to talk with me. While we're all yelling at each other and calling each other names, who's caring about the kids floating through Blair?"
"As a newcomer to the scene, I've been kind of amazed by the different factions," said Joan Wolfe, a member of the civic association who disagrees with Piety on Blair but respects her views. "I see folks at this end of the county being shafted and fighting over a small piece of the pie, and the rest of the county going about its business and not being affected."
Community frustrations surfaced at a recent meeting of the Blair Advisory Council, a remnant of the grass-roots democracy developed by the school board during its progressive years. The virtually all-white group is made up of liberals of the nearby suburbs.
"Local people know what's best for them," said a man with a Brooklyn accent. "I am so frustrated about this whole thing," said Barbara Cantor, their leader. "I'm in a slight quandary about where to proceed."
After prolonged discussion, the group decided to oppose closure, urged a larger student body, "improved racial balance" and restated its support for a stronger academic program. But the group defeated an amendment asking for a hearing on any plan. Hearings, they explained, are only for schools scheduled for closing. To them, that would be thinking the unthinkable for Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.