by Brinda Thomas
In 1985, a group of about 100 students from throughout Montgomery County, Maryland started high school at Montgomery Blair high school on Wayne Ave. as the first members of the brand-new mathematics, science, and computer science Magnet program, a.k.a. the class of 1989. According to former Magnet administrator and earth science teacher, Eileen Steinkraus, “[the Magnet] was established to bring majority students to a minority school that was in jeopardy of being closed. Several years before the opening, when a group of educators, scientists, engineers, school administrators, etc. met to consider what would entice students to attend a school with a less than stellar academic reputation, a program for gifted and talented students in the sciences, math and computer science was their choice. At that time there were no signature or special programs, no IB programs, and very few AP courses in schools. Students who were gifted in these areas were often given additional work, not necessarily more challenging, to do or left to study on their own. ”
“In 1982, the Superintendent and the Board of Education authorized a survey of a representative sample of prospective high school students and their parents to assess the level of interest in a magnet program with a focus on the Performing Arts or Mathematics/Science/Computer Science. Sufficient interest was expressed in the latter, so a task force prepared a report of needed facility renovations, proposed program offerings and a 4-year budget needed for staff and other resources for such a program to begin at Blair,” adds Steinkraus, drawing from some of the earliest school board memos about the Blair Magnet program.
The students came for a variety of reasons. Some, like David Sturek, would have come to Blair with or without the Magnet program, as Blair was his home school. For others, such as J. Bruce Fields, the decision to move to Montgomery County, Maryland was in part due to the existence of the novel science, mathematics, and computer science Magnet program at Blair, the first such program in the county, and among a handful of similar programs in the country. For students coming from outside the Takoma Park and Eastern feeder schools, like Dan Penn, coming to Blair represented a social tabula rasa-- the “chance to start over socially, which I realize now was a tremendous opportunity, but didn't appreciate as much when I was 14.” For Darren Gemoets, who had attended Blair feeder schools through 7th grade before moving in 8th grade, coming to the Blair Magnet was “like going back home.”
Most students chose to attend the Blair magnet for the academic challenge of taking accelerated science and math courses unique to the Magnet curriculum in Montgomery County. The computer science courses were the main draw for Daniel Mall, as well as the chance to interact with like-minded students. Many students were impressed by the knowledge and enthusiasm of Blair teachers and administrators, among other qualities, “I remember going to one of the planning meetings where Mr. Bunday [physics], Dr. Haney[first magnet coordinator], and Ms. Escatell [mathematics] spoke. Mr. Bunday was there in a 3 piece white suit and white beard – he looked like God incarnate and was so passionate about what the program would be. It was great to have teachers who seemed to really care about teaching,” recalls Valencia (Booth) Porter.
The transition into a specialized program within the larger Blair community was not without its challenges, as Lorrie Faith (Ackerman) Cranor describes: “As the first class, we were the guinea pigs. The building wasn't completely renovated when we arrived, the lab equipment hadn't been delivered, and people weren't entirely sure how the eight-period-day was going to work out. Many of the neighborhood Blair students viewed us with suspicion. They called us "maggots." But we didn't really care. We were all just so excited to be part of the new program, and for the most part, everything worked out just fine in the end.”
Members of the Magnet class of 1989 were also the first 9th graders to join a high school in Montgomery County, at a time when middle school (or junior high) included 7th to 9th graders, so “we'd get the extra looks and the questions no matter where we might have gone,” explains Andy Luther. Students integrated with the larger Blair community through the non-Magnet classes in history, English, foreign language, and arts, and through extracurricular activities. By the time the class of 1989 graduated, Luther adds, “the [Student Government Association] had about six or seven Magnets in it (including the class president - Jackson Jordan), the bands - symphonic and jazz both - had at least three of us every year; we had cheerleaders and poms, athletes in most every sport in the school (football, soccer, swimming, golf, basketball, baseball, tennis, volleyball, track, cross country); we had people in the school play, but we also had guys running tech too; writers and editors for almost all of the school publications; and probably a great deal more too.”
Thanks to the class of 1989, the Magnet, Montgomery Blair, and Montgomery County received its first internet connection in 1989. As described in a March 2009 article, members of the class of 1989, Howard Gobioff, Sven Khatri, and Daniel Mall, and Maneesh Aggrawal (’90) competed in the ETA High School Supercomputer Challenge and won the school a $50,000-$100,000 Cyber 910 workstation and direct connection to the internet. At the time, the internet was so novel and access so rare that even the Montgomery County Central Office connected to the internet through Blair, according to Eileen Steinkraus.
Many Magnet traditions set down roots during the first four years of the program’s existence. The first Wallops Island earth science trip started during the Class of 1989’s sophomore year, and was the most-cited favorite memory of the alumni who contributed to this article. Magnet Arts Night also started during the Class of 1989’s junior year.
After graduating, members of the class of 1989 have taken various paths, some of which follow the science/math/computer science track of the Magnet program. Computer science (CS) is a common theme among the members of the class of 1989 who contributed to this article: Daniel Mall is an independent software developer and performance analyst, Darren Gemoets is the technical lead for an IT company, James Fields is a research scientist in the University of Michigan CS department, and Lorrie Cranor is a CS professor at Carnegie Mellon. Daniel Penn earned bachelors and masters degrees in CS and then went on to become a medical doctor, specializing in the tech-heavy field of medical imaging. Other class of 1989 alums, while deviating from the traditional focus of the Magnet program, attributed their creativity and “out-of-the box thinking skills” to the lessons they learned at Blair. Valencia Porter also became a medical doctor, first specializing in pediatric neurology and then switching to integrative medicine which combines Western medicines with Eastern therapies such as acupuncture and herbs. David Sturek studied engineering as an undergraduate, and then switched to business management, obtained an MBA in finance and is now a Vice President for business development in a healthcare technology company. Andy Luther is now a teacher and administrator at Landon School where he is a college counselor, teaches Latin (and has taught science in the past) and coaches basketball and golf. In preparing him to be a teacher, coach, advisor, and mentor to his students, Luther credits the “relationships I forged with my teachers and the lessons that they taught me (or eventually taught me).”