The Magnet Foundation: Enabling Excellence

by Anika Seth '21 for Silver Quest

In 1985, Montgomery County Public Schools created the first county-wide Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science Magnet Program at Montgomery Blair High School to offer advanced courses geared towards skilled students interested in delving deeper into STEM.

This hub for some of the county’s brightest youth was severely threatened in March 2008, when MCPS significantly cut the budget for its “special programs.” Staff and students alike, who held the Blair Magnet program close to their hearts, feared the consequences: losing planning time, losing staff, and losing the unique opportunities that made the Magnet as beloved as it was. Students petitioned the County Council and Board of Education; articles were published in local newspapers; parents wrote strongly-worded letters, but to no avail. The budget cuts went through.

Fortunately, a group of dedicated individuals —teachers, admins, parents, and alumni— persistently endeavored to “keep a special program special,” a phrase coined by math teacher David Stein that would go on to become the unofficial motto of what is now the Magnet Foundation. The 501(c)(3) non-profit supports and enhances current and future Magnet activities, reaches out to the community to attract a more diverse applicant base, and cultivates relationships between alumni and the Magnet. In six short months, from its conception in March to the registration of its non-profit status in November, this spark of an idea grew into a full-fledged foundation.
Student Protests in 2008

Some thought the crisis was averted. With the Magnet Foundation actively incurring donations from community members, some thought it would be enough to sustain the program for years to come. However, county budget cuts increased. Extracurricular travel funding was completely cut, placing an extreme financial burden on Blair’s highly-ranked academic teams – that’s where the Magnet Foundation came in. In 2009, the Foundation began to accept grant applications for magnet activities. Communications Director Ted Jou, Class of ’99, explains that the Foundation “covers expenses for extracurricular activities such as the Robotics Team, the Math Team, the Cybersecurity Club, and the Computer Team.” Lola Piper, a Magnet Computer Science teacher on the Foundation’s Board of Directors, adds that the Foundation has “paid for teams to go to competitions, especially the chaperones.” The Foundation spends a total of about $20,000 annually from community donations, supporting extracurricular activities and purchasing specialized materials like digital circuitry pencil boxes and advanced chemistry equipment.

The Magnet Foundation, having just celebrated its tenth year anniversary, continues to support Magnet students in new ways. One such example is the Foundation’s support of the revitalization of the annual SilverQuest publication (which you are reading right now!), covering printing costs so that it can be distributed for free to Magnet students and teachers. Another one of their major initiatives is the STEM Talent Pipeline Project, created by Foundation Board member, Magnet ’06 graduate, and former Magnet teacher Samir Paul. This three-year pilot program began in 2018 as a partnership between the Foundation and the Art of Problem Solving Academy to provide math education scholarships for elementary school students from racially and economically underrepresented groups, with the long-term goal of increasing diversity in the magnet application pool.

It goes without saying that the Magnet Foundation enables the excellence we witness every day in and out of our classrooms at the Blair Magnet. A very heartfelt thank you goes out to the Magnet Foundation from each student – past, present, and future – who has been lucky enough to experience the unique opportunities offered at Montgomery Blair. The Foundation makes them possible.