Before 1985, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring had a decent but undistinguished science curriculum, offering its 1,800 students the standard advanced placement courses and producing a modest annual crop of regional science contest winners.
But since Blair began a mathematics, science and computer magnet program eight years ago, the public high school has drawn top-flight students from throughout Montgomery County while gaining national attention. The school produced three of the 40 finalists in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the nation's most prestigious math and science competition for high school students, after having two finalists in each of the previous two years.
Two New York City schools, Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School, which in years past produced "Westie" winners in droves, had only one finalist each this year.
The 10 winners of this year's Westinghouse competition will be announced in Washington next week. A $40,000 scholarship is the first prize.
Blair "has exceeded my wildest expectations," said Paul Vance, the superintendent for Montgomery County public schools. "I have never seen a high school's image turn around so quickly."
The enriched math, science and computer program at Blair was designed to lure whites and Asians into the predominantly black and Hispanic school district, which is in the part of the county that abuts Washington. The county is more than 75 percent white.
In the early 1980s, the Montgomery County School Board faced strong community pressure to desegregate Blair, including threats of lawsuits. The board responded with a survey to find out what kind of specialized curriculum would lead parents to send their children to a school outside the mostly white districts.
A science program proved the most enticing. Dr. Michael Haney, the program's first coordinator and its primary architect, suspects that the prospect of a fancy laboratory excited many parents. "Parents understand that a special science program demands special equipment," he said.
There are 377 students in the Blair magnet program, only 58 of them from Blair's own district. Black and Hispanic students make up less than 15 percent of those in the magnet program, though they make up 60 percent of the students at the regular high school.
The magnet students follow a diversified research-oriented course of study in math and science, but they participate in the school's regular curriculum for the humanities, physical education and the arts. More than 500 eighth-graders have applied for next year's 100 freshman openings. Selection is based on grades, standardized test scores and the completion of algebra by the eighth grade.
With extra money provided by the county and state, Dr. Haney outfitted the program with sophisticated technology, including 60 microcomputers for the computer laboratory and chromatographs and advanced spectraphotometers for the chemistry laboratory. The annual budget for equipment and materials, about $78,000, is more than twice that of the regular science department.
All three of Blair's Westinghouse finalists used computers in their projects. One of them, Elizabeth Mann, showed how to use supercomputers to store large blocs of data more efficiently. The other two, Steve Chien and Wei-Hwa Huang, used computers to calculate certain theorems for their expansions of popular mathematical games.
Miss Mann is one of the few magnet students who lives within walking distance of the school, while Mr. Chien and Mr. Huang spend more than an hour a day getting to and from the school. All three are seniors.
Dr. Haney and all three finalists agreed that the program's heavy emphasis on research was the most valuable part of the curriculum and the aspect that best prepared them for the Westinghouse competition.
But some experts fear that such magnet programs send a troubling message to most minorities, because they may suggest that academically challenging programs are more likely to attract white and Asian students than black and Hispanic ones.
"The image is, the fewer blacks and Latinos in it, the more elite the program," said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor and psychiatrist at Harvard University who specializes in the psychological health of minority children. "You have to have the black and Latino students represented in adequate and significant numbers."