Diversity, Inclusion, and the Magnet Program

by Simoni Mishra, Yas’Lyn Mohammed, Anika Rai, and Michaella Sevalie for Silver Quest

The authors and this publication are not experts in this subject matter — the intent behind this piece is to spark conversation about relevant and impactful issues in the Magnet. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of all Magnet students, all Magnet staff, Montgomery Blair High School, or The Magnet Foundation.

*Italicized names represent people who chose to remain anonymous.

Female Magnet Experience

Two children walk into a toy store. The mother ushers the girl to the stuffed animal section, while the boy is pointed to the opposite end of the store: the video games. Even at a young age, the separation of children’s toys by gender norms embodies a societal phenomenon that follows children into their professional careers. Magnet math teacher Jeremy Schwartz elaborates on the effect that these norms have on the careers that students choose to pursue. “There are broad, deep, and longstanding social norms that push young girls away from engineering, math, and science,” he says.

Traditionally male activities typically emphasize computational and cognitive skills while traditionally female activities often focus on nurturing interpersonal relationships. In STEM, these gender norms subconsciously reinforce the idea that men and women are better-suited for different disciplines. Male students tend to take more computationally heavy math and physics courses whereas female students tend to take interdisciplinary life science courses. A concrete example from Blair electives is that there are only eight male students in Foundations of Immunology and only five female students in Mathematical Physics (Math Phys).

Liang is an avid participant in math and science competitions at Blair, many of which are primarily dominated by male students. Despite meeting all of the preliminary requirements to participate, Liang feels she has been treated as less qualified than her male counterparts. “It's usually stuff you hear through the grapevine… like 'why does she deserve to be there?' or ‘she's only in there because she's a female,’” Liang says.

Female students often feel uncomfortable in classes where there are few other female students. “There are times where I have been talked over in my math classes by my male peers… and it’s obviously not a great feeling. In my opinion, this contributes to a desire to take other classes,” female Magnet student Stella* states. “Biology, at least at Blair, is one of the paths of least resistance. I wouldn't necessarily say that the classes themselves are easier, but the environment is definitely more inclusive.”

Similarly, there are more female teachers teaching biology classes and more male teachers teaching math and physics classes. Without female representation, there are fewer role models encouraging female students to pursue STEM. Magnet junior Adalia Winters also notes, “a lot of [the Magnet] staff is male, and when we talk about people who have impacted the field, they tend to be male figures as well.”

As a teacher, Schwartz also notes these patterns. “It's unfortunately common among many — though certainly not all — male students to discount, minimize, or outright ignore contributions from their female peers much more so than they do from their male peers; concurrently, female students more often than male students withdraw a question or comment in progress,” he explains.

Magnet senior Isabella Fan was one of only seven girls on the accelerated computer science track. After completing the course, she heard from a friend that certain male students used a group chat to ridicule female members during class. “Whenever any of the girls asked questions, they would be like, ‘Why is she asking [the teacher] a question? Does she not get it?’” When boys asked questions in these classes, Fan says they didn’t receive the same backlash.

Magnet senior Jennifer Li adds that she “felt very scared to talk at all in classes [as a result].”

Fan agrees: “We rarely spoke up or asked questions. And when we did, we felt this sense of shame, as if it was admitting that we were stupid.”

On the classroom level, Schwartz discusses steps that he's taken to encourage self-advocacy among less outspoken students: “Tempering the most overzealous students, inviting participation from the most withheld, and giving students some control over their smaller workgroups.”

In an effort to increase female enrollment in some of these higher-level classes and create a more inclusive culture, the Magnet administration eliminated the application process for Math Phys and freshman accelerated computer science this year. Magnet Coordinator Peter Ostrander assures that changes in the application processes will not affect the integrity of the class, stressing that “coursework will stay the same.”

Magnet senior Davina explains that her overall experience in Math Phys was positive. “The actual balance of the genders hasn't really impacted my learning in a negative way,” she says. However, she notes that the hyperfixation on resolving gender disparities has alienated her just the same, leaving her often feeling tokenized. Davina says that when she told teachers she was thinking of taking Mathematical Physics, they said, “Oh, wonderful, there’s going to be another girl in that class!”

Race Disparities

And as Liang confirms, these patterns in high school go on to influence life post-graduation as well. “How society views gender roles plays a really big part in what we choose to do [professionally],” she says.

Schwartz describes how the binarized gender roles in the Magnet program reflect broader educational norms. “More broadly, there are structural elements in education that generally favor or align with society's norms benefiting male students,” he says. “The reality is that social norms still trend that girls are more often taught to be outwardly deferential and unobtrusive, while boys are more often taught to be outwardly competitive and assertive.”

“When you hear that over and over again, you start to feel more like a number than a student, or like an endangered species,” Davina explains.

While she understands the excitement behind including female students in advanced Magnet electives, she feels that this attitude attempts to determine her worth as a student by her gender rather than her abilities. “In reality, I’m just in that class because I’m interested in physics.”

In the fall of 1985, the Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science Magnet Program made its debut at Blair. Although it was framed as a special program catered toward highly motivated students, its creation masked race-driven intentions.

According to “Magnet Switches Blair High Image to Positive” (1985) by The Washington Post, more than 60% of Blair students identified as racial minorities before the Magnet. Due to the high number of students of color, many white students at Blair began to transfer out. This pattern of “white flight” incentivized the school system to create countywide school choice programs at buildings that — like Blair — primarily taught Black and Brown students, an attempt to desegregate schools by attracting white students via prestige.

However, as Magnet alumna Samantha Xiao Cody (Class of ‘13) explains in an article published to Medium this summer, the Magnet was created as a separate entity within the school to maintain a sense of elite academic status for white families. “Magnet programs were crucial for this careful curation of school demographics, and crucial to keeping white families happy,” the article reads.

“The first time I heard about the history of the Magnet program was in one of my classes [at Blair],” junior Lydia Melkamu, who is Black, recalls. She says that understanding the history of the Magnet was “like a switch in [her] brain… as to why there’s so little representation [in the Magnet Program]… It was a missing piece to the puzzle.”

“The program involved a little bit of psychological warfare as a Black student,” Blair alumnus and current Diversity and Inclusion Instructional Coordinator Rahman Culver says, recounting his experience as a Black Magnet student. “The program sends a lot of messaging for who STEM is for… who belongs and who doesn’t.”

As Kundai Jongwe, a Black junior, notices, “race in general shows up as an uncomfortable topic, particularly for Magnet students.” Students in the program say “[they] focus on science, [they] don’t focus on politics [or race].” However, Jongwe says she began experiencing microaggressions on her first day at Blair. “A lot of Magnet kids would say, ‘I thought you were Asian, I was not expecting you to look like that looking at your name,’” she describes.

Melkamu explains she was told she “got accepted into the program because of [her] race” by a student, taking away spots from more “deserving” candidates. Per Ostrander, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. He says that the spots being “stolen” were never anyone’s to begin with.

Additionally, Ostrander and Culver led a book group this past summer with fifteen Magnet teachers to spur conversations traditionally neglected in STEM fields. Their discussion of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo assisted in breaking down the stigma around conversations regarding racial disparities. “We're all complicit in this, whether consciously or not, and getting upset with ourselves isn't really the way through this,” says Magnet chemistry teacher Erik Lodal, referring to racial disparities in general. “Overall, it was extremely worthwhile for me and I think for the program as a whole.”

Magnet biology teacher Elizabeth Duval ran multiple guest speaker series to platform role models for marginalized groups. Each presentation highlights science professionals who reflect the diverse identities of the students. One notable speaker was Magnet alumnus Eric Wan who described his challenges and successes as a gay person of color in the STEM field.

Magnet biology teacher Angelique Bosse facilitates meetings for a program called MagPi. In past years, MagPi connected freshmen and senior girls through a mentorship program. This year, meetings were opened up to all grades and genders, and took on a more discussion-based format. Each meeting, students discuss their experiences pertaining to inequalities in the Magnet program.

Magnet junior Natanel Ha feels that MagPi has brought racial and gender disparities out from his periphery. "As someone who is male and white, I feel like I was kind of in my own bubble," he says. In this safe space, students can relate to one another and learn from each other's experiences.

Barriers to Magnet Admissions

Cody says that the process of attempting to maintain a certain academic standard — as the Magnet admissions system does — results in “[gatekeeping] along typical racial and socioeconomic [axes].”

In past years, the Magnet application has included a standardized exam, teacher recommendations, and essays. The exam attracted a fair share of criticism from the community. Many parents expressed their frustration at public forums and PTSA conferences, protesting that family income or access to information might influence individual results.

Higher-income families applying to the Magnet commonly have access to advantages that yield better test scores — expensive tutors, test preparation camps, and programs such as APLUS and C2 Education. There's notable controversy about the overall significance of these tests: While some believe that tests are the only way to measure student ability, others claim that these exams are nothing more than wealth tests.

In September of 2020, Culver and Magnet computer science teacher Ryan Foster hosted their first Black Magnet Student Meeting to bring together Black Magnet students. As Black staff members, they created monthly meetings to provide a space for Black students to “share experiences, issues, and lessons learned.” Considering Culver’s experience as an alumnus and his similar background to the students, it is a “safe space because of the people there, and there is a sense of solidarity,” Jongwe says.

Magnet sophomore NuAmen Audena also recounts how offensive comments and jokes regarding his race isolated him in the program. Audena, a usually outgoing Black student, says he felt himself slowly disengaging in conversations with Magnet peers. “When we were doing group work, I used to be a little afraid to talk and say the wrong thing,” he explains.

Given the low number of Black students in the Magnet, the pressure of being perfect weighed on him. Many Black and Latinx Magnet students share the fear that making one mistake will affirm prejudiced doubts of their innate academic ability. Melkamu explains that whenever she is the only Black person in a class, she feels representative of the entire Black population.

Demographics of MCPS and Blair Magnet, 2020-21 School Year

“I feel like it was never advertised,” says Melkamu, who attended an elementary school in a predominantly Black and Latinx area. Her parents found out about the Magnet program through family acquaintances. “I think that’s generally how most minority students get into the Magnet," Mekamu says. "Honestly, I’ve never heard about it in my elementary school or middle school.”

Davina notes that the key to access is communication. “The county is huge, and different schools advertise [the program] much more than other parts of the county,” she says. “A lot of people don't hear that this exists, and by the time they do... it's too late to put together a good application.

Magnet Future Impact

In 2018, the Magnet administration scrapped the Magnet exam in favor of the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), a multiple-choice assessment measuring students' cognitive ability in three different sections: verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative. This screening process better measures what Ostrander states as Magnet values: “problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking.”

In the same year, the school system piloted a new universal selection process to address disparities at the middle school Magnet level. The school system identified fifth-graders with above-average academic performance and automatically entered them into a testing pool for middle school Magnet programs unless their parents opted out. The admission process was race-blind, gender-blind, school-blind, and forgoed teacher recommendations. Bethesda Magazine wrote that “the new evaluation process for admission to the Magnet programs shifts the burden from the parents to the school system,” leveling the playing field for families who aren’t familiar with the program. MCPS Executive Director Lori-Christina Webb mentions that it has the potential to expand to high school Magnet programs in the future.

Under the new process, 3,989 students were tested for the Magnet programs at Takoma Park Middle School and Eastern Middle School — a near three-fold increase compared to the 1,405 applicants the previous year. Additionally, the number of FARMS-qualifying students that were accepted increased from 25 to 55 in just one year. The racial profile of invited students changed significantly compared to previous years with a marked decrease in Asian American students invited, a slight increase in Black and Latinx or Hispanic students invited, and an overall increase in white students invited.

The long-term effects of these countywide changes to Magnet admissions policies remain to be seen, both in terms of the statistical demographics of admitted students and the experiences of marginalized groups in the program.

There is an evident socioeconomic gap between Magnet students and the rest of MCPS. Only 2.3% of Magnet students receive Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS), compared to 33.8% of overall MCPS students. “An application process with less institutional barriers is a good start,” Cody says. “But ultimately the larger national school system is heavily flawed in terms of its distribution of resources and information along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

In the Magnet classes of 2021-2024, per MCPS demographic grouping data, Black and Latinx/Hispanic students comprised 13% of current students, despite being 53.8% of MCPS’s population. Schwartz says, “The question is not ‘why does the admitted cohort fail to reflect Blair’s (or the county’s) racial/ethnic demographics,’ but ‘why are we not better reaching potential applicants?’”

Authors’ Note

The varied experiences and sentiments of the Magnet community have made it clear — one article is not enough to encapsulate the Magnet experience. It is impossible to discuss the experiences of marginalized Magnet students without noting the nuances of racism, misogyny, and resulting stereotypes. Current steps taken within classrooms are initial steps, but not “fix-all” solutions to the Magnet's structural issues. Nevertheless, self-awareness and reflection are crucial to dismantling shortcomings of our system.