Magnet Through the Ages
by Hermela Mengesha '18 and Emma Schillerstrom '18
This article written by Magnet students was selected as the Best Submission in the 2017 Silver Quest Memorial Writing Competition.
One thing that has never changed, and that will always be a part of the Magnet, is that “something special”.
Tran Pham has always recognized this quality in the students. “To be honest with you, all kids are great when they come out of this program . . . everyone has something special about them,” he says.
There is no argument that the Magnet program is competitive, and that getting in is a challenge. The program has built itself a reputation over the years. It starts with the strength of the teachers and ends with the ingenuity of the students. Something very unique is created when the two come together, something that changes and evolves, and something that pushes you to explore the depths of your imagination.
This strain on the staff makes innovation more difficult. The additional course load teachers face has also taken away opportunities for collaboration and integration between classes. Before the days of budget cuts, “if you went into an office during a planning period, it would be teachers in there talking about what kids are doing in their class versus this class [and] what skills they need,” Piper recalls. “It was just a lot of collaboration.”
The Magnet program has not been without its ups and downs. Budget cuts dealt a severe blow to the Magnet. Many Magnet teachers face the challenge of designing a new course from scratch. At the start of the program, additional staffing was provided so teachers would have ample time to do so. Now, many teachers must design such courses in the summer and on their own time.
Through Trials and Tribulations
The curriculum is not the only thing that has changed. Originally, the county placed and funded Magnet programs in areas that had a high percentage of minority students, in an effort to draw white students to those areas. In the early years there were not many minorities within the Magnet class, similar to now. The Asian population was lower during the first years as well. One of the clearest shifts is a rise in the number of Asian students entering the program.
One of the things that has kept the Magnet program thriving is its ability to adapt and change. For instance, Piper does not have to teach kids to turn on a computer anymore or how to use a mouse. Angelique Bosse, who teaches the Senior Research Class, recalls a time when students had to line up behind the single telephone in the teacher’s office to call prospective mentors. Peter Ostrander, the current Magnet coordinator, described the Magnet’s evolution as maintaining excellence, high expectations, and performance through the years. “I think it was a great program originally. I don't think there was a time when the program wasn't a high quality program,” he says. Ostrander has also seen the Magnet keep pace with the evolving times. “I think we have adapted to times. I know if you look at back when the program first started, we are not doing the same thing.”
Despite the many misconceptions of the Magnet that have endured through the years, most Magnet students do not love doing their homework and certainly procrastinate just like everyone else. What they are, though, is a group of kids eager to learn and explore mathematics, science, and computer science - a group of kids eager to be inspired by the many educators who have been dedicated to the program for decades.
A Sign of the Times
Piper, however, has seen a noticeable shift towards an emphasis on grades. “[Now] everything is about grades . . . before the kids that came to this program weren’t happy with their schools so they were really taking risks,” she says.
Junior Hannah Kannan notices similar expectations of the Magnet in Blair students today. Kannan adds that there is a wider variety of students within the Magnet than most expect.
Back then, there were many preconceived notions about the Magnet and the kids in it, as there are today. But as Computer Science teacher Lola Piper, one of the first Magnet teachers, put it, “What was interesting when I first had Magnet students in the class was they weren’t nerds; they were just regular kids.”
Thirty-two years ago, a program began - a program that has since thrived thanks to the strength of its early years. The county began funding Magnet programs with the intent of adding diversity to schools by bringing in ethnic groups that were not well represented. However, the Magnet program accomplished so much more than diversity within Blair. It provided a place for many adventurous problem-solvers, who for too long did not fit in in their home schools, to delve into the creative and innovative world of STEM.
Revenge of the Nerds
Silver Quest and the Magnet Foundation have written about the Magnet's history before:
Many teachers have been interviewed:
Ralph Bunday (Spring 2009)
Megan Dieckman (Winter 2012)
Robert Donaldson (Spring 2014)
Elizabeth Duval (Spring 2012)
Nannette Dyas (Spring 2009)
Dennis Heidler (Fall 2009)
Peter Ostrander (Fall 2009)
Samir Paul (Summer 2015)
Tran Pham (Summer 2013)
Jeremy Schwartz (Fall 2015)
James Street (Fall 2011)
John Templin (Summer 2011)