Meeting the Magnet Coordinator

By Vivian Li '21 and Samantha Rodriguez '22 for Silver Quest

Peter Ostrander, the Magnet Coordinator at Blair, has a lot on his plate. Often, you can find him meeting with teachers and students in order to fully understand the perspectives of those involved in the program. Yet, this is only a small portion of his job. He is also responsible for the bureaucratic and administrative aspects of the program, including buying supplies, hiring teachers, and ensuring that all rules are being followed. Another aspect is reaching out to students to present them with outside opportunities, competitions, and useful lessons. These lessons, which often take the form of podcasts, attempt to make students more well-rounded thoughtful individuals. Finally, Ostrander is integral to the process of admission of new Magnet students: he not only promotes and spreads awareness of the program but also oversees the screening process for Magnet applicants.

With all the different responsibilities, Ostrander’s organization must be on par. Some of the key skills he has amassed over the years include prioritizing deadlines, setting a routine, and putting everything online so that it is easy to access. Ostrander also relies heavily on his assistant, Ms. Castro De Lanzas, who helps set appointments and do general organization. However, alongside his work, Ostrander says he tries to structure his time so that “it isn’t just work... It’s thinking time and things like that… Really I just try to structure my time so not every single minute has to be spent physically doing something, but I have time where I can talk with my teachers, talk to my students, engage [...], get in the classrooms informally to see how things are going.”

While his job specifically states ‘Magnet Coordinator,’ Ostrander is also a Blair administrator. This title comes with its own set of responsibilities, including lunch, after school, and hallway duty. Furthermore, Ostrander oversees grading, reporting, scheduling, and the technology department.

The best aspect of the job for Ostrander is the freedoms that come with managing the Magnet department, a program that is a current trailblazer in Montgomery County education. He finds that he is not confined unlike typical education jobs where there is a lot of bureaucracy. Instead, he feels the Magnet program allows him to focus on giving students more choices and making school more engaging through development of new courses which give students the opportunity to investigate their interests in more depth. “We get to really push what we’re trying to do with students,” Ostrander says in reference to the amount of leeway given to the program. “We get to be responsive to students in ways I think other [programs] can’t be.”

As a young student, Ostrander would never have imagined himself as a school administrator. Born in Tennessee, he moved frequently from state to state with his father, who served in the Navy. After his father passed, Ostrander settled with his mother in Silicon Valley, where he developed his first interests in STEM. He also participated in the Hewlett Packard Explorer Scouts, a section of Boy Scouts that focused on learning a specific trade. “One night a week, five of us would go and [Hewlett Packard] would teach us programming, which was how I got into a STEM field.” he says.

Unlike most Magnet students, Ostrander was not raised in a family with the precedent of attaining higher education, and the lack of this pressure allowed him to truly explore his interests. “My family was mainly a blue collar family and my dad had dropped out of high school, so there wasn’t necessarily the pressure to go to college or anything like that,” Ostrander says. “It was really just to do something you enjoy.”

Ostrander was the first person in his family to earn a college degree. He studied at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo where he initially planned to pursue the interest of programming computer games. Over time, he became more involved with the education side of computer science, ultimately graduating with a teaching certification. “I was going to study computer science, but my interest at that time was to develop educational games and education software,” he says. “A little bit in, I decided to do more on the education side than on the computer side.”

He also boasts a formidable collection of license plates, built up from years of visiting flea markets, antique stores, and eBay. He also receives plates as gifts and trades them at license plate swap meets. Over the years, he’s amassed two collections: one of plates from every state during his birth year, and one of old Maryland license plates dating back to 1913. “When I taught at Takoma, my walls were covered in license plates,” Ostrander says. Although they’re not hanging in the Magnet office at Blair, Ostrander has them displayed in his work room and basement at home.

When he’s not working, Ostrander uses baseball to spend time with his family. He once traveled with his older son to attend baseball games, and now does the same with his younger son. In addition to being an engaging sport to watch, baseball gives Ostrander downtime to think about other things. “As much as you think [baseball's] important, it’s not that important,” he says. "It’s one of the lighter things that I do."

Ostrander is also an avid geocacher, where he hikes in search of small boxes hidden in the woods, of which there are millions across the world. He notes that his favorite caches are the specially made containers that require a puzzle to open, as well as the ones that take him to impressive locations. “By the time I die— which hopefully is in a long time— my goal is to find a geocache in every county in the 48 contiguous states,” he says.

Many of his hobbies and initiatives are linked to a key idea: the importance of understanding people from different backgrounds and expanding the horizon of experience. Baseball allows Ostrander to interact with a diverse set of people from different places, while geocaching forces him to seek out new locations and meet new people. “The idea is to try to get people to be a little bit more empathetic,” he says. “Not just sympathetic, but empathetic, and a little bit more aware.”

Ostrander is the father of two sons and a daughter. His older son teaches English in the county, his daughter is a senior in college studying criminal justice, and his younger son is in middle school.

This is especially important in the Magnet program, which often lacks diversity in terms of the background students have growing up. Ostrander, himself having grown up in notably different circumstances, feels that this harms students as they are not exposed to “a diverse set of viewpoints.” Through his podcasts, Ostrander wants to best express the importance of expanding one’s ideas and changing what one perceives to be important.

Ostrander attended a graduate program aimed at developing educational software, but turned back to teaching when the World Wide Web launched the year he obtained his degree. Although his degree was quickly rendered obsolete, he met his wife in graduate school who led him to the Maryland area. Ostrander moved from being a computer science teacher and technology planner in Massachusetts, to teaching at Takoma Park Middle School and serving as a magnet coordinator at Roberto Clemente Middle School, to serving as a central office overseer of the Montgomery County Magnet programs. He finally arrived at Blair, where he is serving his eleventh year as the Magnet Coordinator.

One thing Ostrander strives to make evident to the Magnet population is that school is not simply technical. “School is important but it’s not the be-all-end-all,” Ostrander says. “Oftentimes I think, especially for students in our program, that they lose sight of the important [lessons] in life because they don’t think that will get them into college and instead they focus on the mechanical aspects of learning.” To address this concern, Ostrander puts out monthly podcasts with topics ranging from biased AI to mortality rates of minorities. These podcasts, he hopes, will get students to think more about humanity. “The point is to engage in discussions that are meaningful… [and] to show different perspectives.”