A controversy from the start

Dec. 5, 2006, midnight | By Erica Turner | 13 years, 10 months ago

Building Montgomery Blair High

Sitting behind his desk and leaning back in his chair, principal Phillip Gainous reminisces about Blair's controversial construction filled with racism, angry committees and student led walkouts. These were all factors surrounding the decision to build Blair at its current location in Four Corners.

The original home of the Blazers was built in 1925 at 313 East Wayne Avenue and named Takoma Park-Silver Spring High School. By 1935, the school opened in the same location as Montgomery Blair High School, in honor of Montgomery Blair, the lawyer who represented Dred Scott in a United States Supreme Court case that fought to give people of African descent United States citizenship.

Decades later, due to overcrowding and poor building conditions, state legislators began speculation of rebuilding the school and in 1998, Montgomery Blair High was moved to it's current location in Four Corners near the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard. Blair's now stands at 378,000 square feet covering 42 acres of land and the building cost $37,344,106 to construct. The three-story building includes a 750-seat auditorium, a greenhouse, three courtyards, two parking lots, a 400-meter track and five sports fields.

Blair's transition has been beneficial according to school principal Phillip Gainous. "We had outgrown the Old Blair," he says of the transition. Gainous believes that the new school provides it's students with a fresh learning environment and has allowed students from all over the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area to come together. "Our new building is a modern school with up-to-date technology," Gainous says. "It's also nice to have a building that doesn't flood when it rains and that is free of rats the size of cats. Although the school has been deemed a success by Gainous, the planning and construction of the new building was a process rife with controversy, according to Roxanne Fus who says that "some members of the Woodmoor neighborhood did not want Blair to become a part of their community."

Blair on Kay

Blair is located on land that was once owned by a man named Kay, and was subsequently called the "Kay tract." The Kay tract had some wooded areas but mainly consisted of underbrush and shrubbery. The tract was "home to dirt bike trails, homeless people and wildlife," according to attendance secretary Roxanne Fus who has lived in the Four Corners area all her life.

When MCPS investigated building Blair on the Kay tract, Kay sold the land to MCPS on the condition that it would be used for educational purposes, according to Fus. "Kay claimed that he would only sell the tract if a school was going to be built on the land," she says. Once the Montgomery County School Board and County Council voted to approve the location, the decision to build Blair on the Kay tract was finalized.

A heated debate

With the choice to build Blair in the Woodmoor neighborhood came differing opinions regarding the decision. Some community members supported the construction, says Fus. "Groups such as 'Build Blair on Kay' and 'Be fair to Blair' developed in defense of the school," she says. Parent committees also developed because they believed that Blair was the best way to keep the community together. "Old Blair was overcrowding but neighborhood parents did not want to cut feeder schools off from old Blair," Fus recalls. "Rather then redistrict feeder schools to other high schools, the new Blair would accommodate all of the feeder school students and would allow a more connected community."

Community groups against the construction formed as well, such as the Woodmoor/Pinecrest Association, a group of homeowners in the area who greatly disapproved of the idea of the new Blair because they thought it would be too disrupting to the community. "There was big opposition, and it was racial," says Gainous. Some community groups not in favor of the construction went as far as creating flyers specifically opposing the minority students that would be attending Blair. "They made flyers with the character 'Pig Pen' from the cartoon "Lil Abner," says Gainous. "'Pig Pen' was supposed to represent the black kids."

Fus recalls attending a meeting hosted by the association where parents came to discuss Blair's construction and complained about the arrival of new students. "Many parents claimed that they didn't want 'those kids' to come to Blair," she says. The homeowners were also worried about a decline in housing prices after Blair's construction.

With two very adamant sides arguing this battle, the outcome of the situation was unclear. Thoughts of only renovating Old Blair circulated among MCPS board members but there was no holding school big enough to accommodate its population. The student advocacy for Blair's relocation was a turning point in the decision, according to Gainous. "The SGA spoke to the county council, students attended press conferences, there were student led walk-outs and the kids even lobbied politicians," he says. Student involvement, along with the support of parents and staff ultimately decided Blair's fate.

Architectural compromise

When the school's building permit was confirmed by MCPS, architects began planning and construction for the new site. Much of the building design can be explained by the major role that community concerns played in the architecture according to Gainous. "One concern was making the building blend in with the community so that it [the building] wouldn't be overwhelming."

The tiered layout of the school was purposely designed so that the front of Blair, the side directly facing the neighborhood would appear as only one story so as to be less of a shock to the community, according to senior Ritchie Willet. "I live in Woodmoor and the fact that the building only looks like its one level makes it seem like it doesn't have that big of an impact on our community," he says.

Blazers also had an impact on the design of the school, according to Gainous. "Students participated in the process of naming and numbering Blair's hallways and came up with the idea of enclosing the third floor with glass," Gainous says.

Despite all of the uncertainty and chaos, Blair is now well established and is a great improvement for its students. "The kids love the big, openness of the building and they take pride in their school, which equals a success in my eyes," Gainous says. He sums up the outcome of the transition with a smile, saying, "It's also nice to look up at the ceiling and not see the sky."

Erica Turner. More »

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