by Priyanka Gokhale
On July 20, the Magnet community received an unexpected e-mail. “It is with mixed emotions that I announce my departure from the Magnet program at Blair,” wrote Dennis Heidler, who had been the magnet coordinator since February 2006. This summer, Heidler officially transitioned into a new position as the Assistant Principal at Lucy V. Barnsley elementary school in Rockville.In August 2006, a new math and science magnet program for up-county students opened its doors at Poolesville high school, with former Blair teacher Mark Curran taking on the coordinator position of the new program. In May 2007, Philip Gainous – who had been the Principal at Blair since the Magnet’s inception – announced his departure for an administrative post within the Montgomery County education system. And in March 2008, budget cuts from the county forced the Magnet to bid adieu to teacher planning periods as well as two longtime magnet teachers – Nanette Dyas and Ralph Bunday – with Susan Ragan also retiring this spring.
Leaving a great program
Despite the changes, Heidler’s confidence in the program has not wavered. “If you value a program where you’ve got great intellectuals and students and staff members, you’re going to have a great program [no matter what changes occur],” he says, citing the passion of dedicated students and selfless teachers as the backbone of the Magnet.
For Heidler, one of the most rewarding experiences was changing the nature of the Magnet recruitment process and getting the word out to more gifted and talented students than ever before. What used to be a “traditional process” where seniors spoke at informational meetings has turned into a collaborative effort featuring underclassmen who recently graduated from those middle schools. “I think having more students and more underclassmen involved and having students from that area of the county was ultimately very helpful to our recruitment,” he says.
Heidler took pride in breaking barriers between the magnet and the Blair community. “That was one of the nice things: we got to break down the bounds between the magnet department, the Blair science program and the Science, Math, and Tech academy.”
He also noted the magnet’s outreach efforts in the Blair cluster: “Mr. Bunday and Mr. Stein were involved in a pilot program working with some women from Eastern Middle School and it was really neat to meet some of those middle school students and see a lot of them matriculate to Blair and become involved in the school.”
A new era, a new opportunity
With all that the magnet has accomplished and overcome during his three and a half years, Heidler views his departure as bittersweet. He also notes that the news may have caused some alarm in the magnet community, saying he “would have preferred to ease people into the situation.” But Heidler said that the nature of the process is sudden – and ultimately looks forward to the opportunity for personal and professional growth in his new career at Barnesley.
The school houses one of the seven Elementary Center Programs for the Highly Gifted in Montgomery County, but Heidler’s duties will be much broader as Assistant Principal. The new position will allow him to interact with a wider spectrum of students, including those in a specific program for deaf or hard of hearing students.
Coincidentally, many Magnet students of present and past are alumni of the Center program at Barnsley, and Heidler doesn’t doubt that he’ll be working with future Blazers. “As I look at the wall of the fifth grade graduates here I recognize a lot of faces,” Heidler laughs, adding that some students were even “cute” back in the day.
And Heidler says he’ll never stop working towards enriching education for bright young minds. “I’m never going to get away from gifted and talented education,” he says. “I think it’s important”
For Heidler, a passion for gifted and talented education came with an ultimate goal to work in administration. That niche of the school staff has been in the books for Heidler, although he first came to the magnet as a computer science teacher. “At the end of my first year [at Blair] is when I started my Masters of administration,” Heidler says. “When I had to do an internship two years later [Eileen Steinkraus, former Magnet coordinator] was my mentor.”
And when Steinkraus left the program, Heidler was named the acting coordinator which became the full-time job. There is no coordinator-in-training this time, and Steinkraus has taken time out of her retirement to serve as the acting coordinator while candidates are interviewed for the position. “Ultimately the appointment of the Magnet coordinator is [the duty] of the Board of Education, Heidler says: “I’m a bystander now.”
Speaking confidently about the future of the program and happily about his years there, Heidler says it was time for him to move on to something different.
“I really loved being at Blair and sometimes you have to recognize that in order to grow as a professional and grow as an individual you can’t always just stay in one place,” he says. “I could spend the rest of my career in a happy and wonderful program but I don’t know if that would allow me to grow and serve more students.”