When he was 10, Norwin Malmburg, the son of a nuclear physicist, became intrigued by computers. At age 12, he took a computer language course at the Goddard Space Flight Center and his family bought a computer for their home.
That's when Malmburg began to speak a language that most of his junior high school classmates didn't understand: computer talk.
Malmburg, now 17, is a senior majoring in physics at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the newest high school in Prince George's County and the county's leader in academic achievement.
"My son had very little in common with his junior high school classmates," said Doris Malmburg. "When he talked about computers, they weren't interested. At Roosevelt, there are a lot of students who share his interests."
Six years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt High School did not exist. Today, its academic record surpasses all other high schools in the county, and its supporters hail it as a model of what can be done to identify talented students and help them reach their best achievement levels.
Now the second largest public high school in Prince George's, with an enrollment of 2,200 students, Roosevelt is the only school in the county that operates both a regular high school and a highly selective program of college-level science and technology courses.
Last year, 12 Roosevelt students, more than at any other county school and one of the highest totals in the Washington area, were semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship competition, one of the traditional measurements of a school's academic excellence. And four black students were semifinalists in the competition of the National Achievement Scholarship Program for Outstanding Negro Students.
On standardized tests of basic reading, mathematics and language skills, all ninth-graders at Roosevelt scored at the eleventh-grade level, well above other county schools, whose scores ranged from seventh- to ninth-grade levels. Roosevelt's students also averaged higher scores in 1979 and again last year than the normal national averages established by the Iowa Test for Basic Skills, the standard achievement test.
In another, county-administered comprehensive test of basic skills last spring, tenth-grade students at Roosevelt, not just those in the special program, performed at the twelfth-grade level or above in mathematics, reading and language, while tenth-graders at other Prince George's high schools performed at the eleventh-grade level or below.
James Bruns, coordinator of the program, said 90 percent of the students in the program's first graduating class last year were admitted to college, including Princeton, Brown, Brandeis, Northwestern, The University of Maryland and the U.S. Naval Academy. By comparison, 40 to 60 percent of the regular high school graduates at the school went on to college.
How this kind of success was achieved in five years is a case study in educational planning, many officials say.
The idea for a science and technology center at Roosevelt, then under construction, was first proposed in 1975 by then-county school board member Nick Eny, who suggested that such a program be integrated into the new high school rather than be set up separately.
Over the next year, a team of county educators scrambled to work out curriculum details and procedures for selecting the students. Several county representatives visited other specialized high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science in New York and the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, to observe how the scientific and technical programs worked there. The result was Roosevelt's special curriculum, which is squeezed into the students' day by an extension of the school day from six to seven hours.
Rob Jones, a 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt who lives in Upper Marlboro, is among the 880 students enrolled this year in the special program, where students take a highly structured course of study in biology, chemistry, physics, and architectural, mechanical and electronic technology.
After his junior year at Roosevelt, Jones enrolled in a biology course at Harvard University last summer. He competed well against sophomores and juniors from some of the best-known schools in the United States.
"You know you've got a great school when they've heard about you at Harvard," said Jones, a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist who hopes to be accepted by Harvard for next fall.
Last year, 2,200 eighth- and ninth-grade students from schools across the county took placement tests in competition for the 242 ninth-grade slots in Roosevelt's science and technology center. The students are admitted according to their rank when placement test scores and their overall grade point averages are combined.
During their first two years in the program, the students concentrate on the mastery of basic language, math and industrial arts skills. In the final two years, they select one of six majors in science and technology and take advanced placement courses in their field, which can exempt them from similar courses when they arrive at college.
One day recently, 17 seniors enthusiastically joined their advanced physics teacher, David Myers, in a detailed study of the mechanics of motion. From the moment the students walked into the classroom -- equipped with large black-topped experiment tables, a hugh slide ruler and an assortment of flasks and tubing -- the room was abuzz with lively conversation about the homework from the day before.
During the 48-minute class, Myers acted as a moderator, confirming correct responses and correcting inaccurate answers to a series of physics problems designed to determine the characteristics of a block moving back and forth on a flat plane.
In another classroom, where one entire wall was paneled with chalkboards, a group of 12 ninth- and tenth-graders sat and quietly took notes as their algebra instructor, Linda Agreen, explained the difference between the parts of equations.
Down the hall, half a dozen students gathered around a computer terminal to observe as a set of instructions were being programmed into the machine.
Sherry Romerstein, a 17-year-old senior and National Merit Scholarship finalist who hopes to study international relations at Georgetown University, said she came to Roosevelt in search of an academic challenge.
This semester, she is taking college-level biology and English, computer math, geology and a year-long research project that began last fall. To keep up with her homework, Romerstein said, requires a minimum of three hours a day studying.
"I'm personally not interested in science or technology as a career," said Romerstein, a biology major from Clinton. "But Roosevelt happens to be the best school in the county when it comes to a high level of academics in any subjects. The teachers are very good and the classes are geared to move fast."
This semester, Norwin Malmburg is taking English, college-level physics, calculus, geology and a physics research project. He also has duties as a student assistant for data processing.
With the new $9.5 million school, built on a rolling, 40-acre site in Greenbelt, has come what one school official called an "aura of scholarship."
Roosevelt's 12 National Merit semifinalists last year represented the sixth highest total among Washington-area public and private schools.
Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, which traditionally has been the area's highest producer of Merit semifinalists, was first again last year with 32. Langely High, in Fairfax County, was second with 18. Fort Hunt and Lake Braddock high schools in Fairfax County each had 14 semifinalists. Rockville's Wootton High and Sidwell Friends, a private school in Northwest Washington, both had 13. Six others had between six and 11 semifinalists, including D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson High, which had six.
Because Roosevelt draws top students from schools across Prince George's County, there has been some criticism that its science and technology center unfairly draws the most gifted students from the rest of the county's high schools.
"There is a great deal of concern among principals around the county who don't want Roosevelt or Oxon Hill to siphon off their best students," said Thomas Moran, principal at Oxon Hill Senior High. "I think that's a legitimate concern.
"We have established a fine reputation here over the last 55 years for producing some of the county's finest young men and women," he said. "We've had National Merit Scholarship semifinals here every year since the competition started in the 1950s."
But there were no semifinalists at the school this year, Moran said, because he believes the several students who would have scored for Oxon Hill in the competition now attend Roosevelt.
"Any time you have a special program, some schools are going to lose some good youngsters," Louise Waynant, the school system's coordinating director of instructional services, said in support of the school. I'm sure the schools regret losing some of their most able youngsters, but they are glad that the students are going where they will have the opportunity to pursue their own special interests."
"We have an excellent teaching staff, a lot of capable students and parents who are interested in their children," said Robert R. Ogden, the principal of Roosevelt High. "We have a school the kids enjoy coming to and they are motivated to do their best."
Roosevelt is the closest thing in Prince George's County to a totally academic high school. Waynant said the county has no plans for an academic high school. She said the county offers a selection of college-level courses in chemistry, biology, physics, English, mathematics and social studies at various schools.
After months of debate over the issue, the D.C. school board recently approved plans for an academic high school. Like Roosevelt's tech center, the school will draw the most talented students and teachers from other schools in the system. While Roosevelt offers both concentrated studies in the sciences and all of the other activities traditionally associated with high school, the proposed academic high school in D.C. will primarily offer an extensive curriculum in the study of math, foreign languages and the social sciences.
A shortcoming of the program, some say, is that most students must be bused in from across the county, with some students traveling for up to two hours one way.
"We have a very large school system and the only way to guarantee that the opportunities at Roosevelt are available to students systemwide is to bring them in by bus," Waynant said. To alleviate the problem of long bus rides, she said, the county is planning to open a second science and technology center in 1983 at Oxon Hill Senior High School in southern Prince George's County.