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; B01
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.