by John Li
Magnet alumnus John Li '02 was in Peter Ostrander's computer science class a decade ago at Takoma Park Middle School. John visited Blair on Thursday, September 17th to catch up with the new Magnet coordinator.
John Li: So just to get us up to date, what have you been up to since you taught me back in 8th grade at Takoma in 1997-98?
The middle school existed, but they replicated the Takoma program and the Eastern program upcounty. So they took the Math Science program from Takoma, the Humanities program from Eastern; because it was a smaller geographic region they had 50 seats for each program, and they put them all in the same building. When that opened, I took the coordinator position and was there for the first three years. Then the County created a position in Central Office to oversee all of the Magnet programs. I worked in Central Office for the last 3 years, overseeing the different Magnet, IB, and gifted programs, and then this position opened up, so here I am.
Li: So the first teaching job you had, when was that?
Ostrander: That was 1990; I taught Science and a little bit of Math out in San Jose, California. I went to school out in California, so I taught in San Jose. It was actually year-round school, so there was very little downtime between when you ended and when you had to start, which was nice. Did that for a year, then I went to graduate school, and when I was in graduate school I was a Resource Aide for a small school in Templeton, California. When I finished up with that, I moved out here, taught in DC for half a year, taught in Massachusetts for a year and half, then down to Montgomery County, in Takoma.
I wanted to see different systems: I worked in year-round systems, worked in urban systems, rural systems. It was just a matter of seeing a lot of systems before I settled down, and I got lucky to settle down in Montgomery County. Even within one system, it’s a huge system.
Li: So what it is about Montgomery County that made you want to settle here?
Ostrander: I think the fact that ever since I’ve been in Montgomery County I’ve been working with the Magnet Programs. Even though we get a lot of criticism for not paying enough attention to the gifted kids and these students who have these great academic talents, the truth is they still do things about it. There are a lot of systems that don’t, that kind of ignore that population. I wouldn’t say necessarily ignore, but they leave it up to the teachers to figure it out. This county, because of its size, you can kind of pool resources. The fact that there are so many students, you get these Magnet programs that are taking the top 1 or 2 percent and they’re a really strong population academically. What you can do with those kids, it’s pretty amazing.
That’s what drew me to the system and prompted me to stay. From an educator’s point of view, for me, it’s pretty invigorating when you work with kids that are doing novel things. Not just doing the same thing year after year– which having taught things like Computer Science, it’s important for me to not have to do the same things year after year, as technology changes and science changes as the kids change. I was talking to one kid here the other day, and mentioned to him that as he got older he stopped running in the hallways. And he goes, “Well, I still want to run, because I’m excited to learn and I’m excited to get to where I’m going, but since I’m—” I guess a junior or a senior this year “—I guess it’s time to follow the rules.” That’s why he was running through the hallways; he wasn’t trying to misbehave, he was really excited to get where he was going. It’s that kind of energy that’s pretty exciting.
Li: What’s the difference between teaching and being a coordinator?
Ostrander: When you’re teaching you can be a little more focused just on your classes and your interaction with the students. You can get away a little bit with having that narrow mindset. The good thing about the Magnet staff I’ve worked with in each building is that they aren’t just worried about that narrow picture, and they often take ownership of the Magnet program, which is good. From the coordinator point of view, the difference is you’re dealing with a larger scale of parents, you’re dealing with administrative things instead of teaching things, coordination with the other programs. It’s looking at the big picture and the long term of the program, where do we go and are the courses we offer the right courses to offer? So there are some differences, to be honest I enjoy being a teacher more than I enjoy being anything. It’s been enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing that replaces that more immediate connection with the kids. That’s also what brought me back to this school from Central Office.
Li: You mentioned things are changing constantly. What are your goals for the Magnet program for the next few years?
Ostrander: I’ve talked a little with the staff in the building, I haven’t had a chance yet to talk with the students or parents – I’ve been here a week. I’ve tried to get a lot of input from teachers; I’ve actually set up some times to meet with the individual teachers to see what they have to say. The first thing is asking the people who are here, “Where do you think we need to go?” What I’m hearing from the staff is, where we’ve really suffered is when we hit the staffing cuts. The staffing cuts to our program were not necessarily where we’re firing teachers, but as the county lessened the staffing allocation billed to the Magnet program, there were certain things that had to have the initial staffing, so those things took whatever staffing was left. In doing that, we had fewer teachers within the program, and that was done mainly through attrition. We had some retirements, we lost some great institutional knowledge when those teachers left, and weren’t able to backfill those positions. Instead, the people who were in the program already were picking up those classes. Having fewer teachers in the building means that, while we have experts in every subject, we have fewer fields. In losing some of the teachers, we’ve also lost some of the course diversity, especially for the juniors and seniors. So those are issues.
How do we increase the amount of qualified staff that are working with the kids, that’s going to be important. How do we build up to the diversity of courses we used to offer? How do we do it in the framework of the larger building? The building gets the staffing allocation, and then it’s a matter of juggling that. It’s not something we come in and demand, “Hey, we need more teachers.” Some of our teachers, will they be teaching 100% within the Magnet or not? It’s really redefining how we see the Magnet program within the building as well. Is it essential that all Magnet teachers teach only Magnet classes or is it OK to have that kind of mixed? The reality is we have that mix already. We want to have our junior and senior elective teachers working with local kids, that’s important. Does that make them not a Magnet teacher? To me, that doesn’t matter as much as, are we providing high level content for the kids that are going to continue with advanced studies when they leave us?
In a smaller program, you can’t isolate yourself, it becomes that much tougher to do what it is you need to do. That’s not saying everyone’s going to teach all over the place; we still need our core teachers that really own the program.
Li: If you have to bring in some cutting-edge classes, what would those be?
Ostrander: I was looking through the course bulletin the other day and seeing what courses are no longer there. In Math, Advanced Geometry and Origins of Mathematics. In Science, are we creating the right science courses for the kids, like Microbiology, Environmental Sciences, things that definitely have an impact now, and do we have those courses and need those courses? So again, it’s talking with the universities, talking with the teachers here, talking with industry to see where they see need. We’re setting the foundation. Can you learn the things you need to learn so that four, five, six, seven, eight years from now, after you have your bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate, can you be successful learning while you’re learning at the university level or in the marketplace? We’re teaching kids in a way so they can continue to learn.