In 70s and 80s, Blair deemed too black

May 23, 2002, midnight | By Lily Hamburger | 18 years, 8 months ago

Today, Blair's diverse student body is bursting the school, with about 300 students enrolled beyond the school building's capacity. However, just decades ago, Blair was threatened with closure because its population was too small—and too black.

Setting up a crisis

To promote integration, the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) mandated in the late 1970s that schools were not supposed to have a minority population over 30 percent higher than the county's minority population, which was then under 20 percent.

A 1980 report by the BOE declared Blair's non-white population "too high" because it exceeded the county's limit. Blair was the fifth largest high school and had the highest non-white enrollment rate in Montgomery County. The minority population at Blair was actually the majority, and many community members worried Blair was in danger of becoming a "black school."

Many white parents in the community did not want their children to attend Blair, where whites were in the minority. Parents testified before the BOE, pressuring board members to redraw boundary lines so their white kids wouldn't have to attend the mostly non-white school. In the summer and fall of 1981, the Board responded with a series of moves that almost shut down Blair.

First, the board redrew school boundaries, redirecting mostly white students from Forest Knolls, Four Corners and Pinecrest elementary schools away from Blair to Einstein High School. Then, the board changed the integration standard to permit Blair's 58 percent non-white population.

The change eliminated 400 students from Blair's population, and the remaining students were mostly black. With the Wayne Avenue building far under capacity and Blair's student population pushing even the new integration standard, the board had set the stage for Blair's possible closure.

"Four hundred fewer students will mean fewer teachers assigned to Blair," reads a 1981 Silver Chips article. "This will result in fewer class offerings and less variety of selections for a school with a more diverse student body and a wider variety of needs than any other school in the county."

The BOE tried to mollify Blair students and parents by allocating more funds to Blair. But the community was far from subdued.

A volcanic reaction

As the Board contemplated closing Blair, it faced legal threats from several organizations, including the NAACP, which alleged intentional segregation in the redrawing of school boundaries. "Where [the Board was] drawing the lines aggravated segregation," says Roscoe Nix of the NAACP. Nix, who served on the county BOE in the 1970s, says the Maryland Board of Education eventually stepped in to stop its Montgomery County counterpart.

The current county council president, Blair Ewing, was one of two board members in the early '80s to oppose the boundary changes. He describes the 1978-1982 BOE as "mostly racist," because many of them supported board member Marian Greenblatt's motion to move more whites out of Blair. "They were trying to create a ghetto with the Beltway as a wall," Ewing says.

Positive prospects for a school in a slump

But because of pressure from citizens, Blair remained open and the Board was forced to examine other options. Northwood High School was officially closed in 1985, and Northwood students were given the option of attending Kennedy, Einstein or Blair high schools. According to Principal Phillip Gainous, most students from Northwood chose to attend Blair because they felt welcome, no matter what their race.

The addition of Northwood students boosted Blair's population and its white enrollment, protecting Blair from the threat of closure. Blair's other draw for white students was the Math, Science and Computer Science Magnet, officially established in 1985.

According to Nix, the Magnet was introduced to stop white flight and keep middle-class black families in the area, as both whites and middle-class blacks were leaving the Blair area in the early '80s.

The Magnet also improved Blair's poor academic reputation, according to Magnet teacher Ralph Bunday.

Blair's negative reputation, Gainous says, was perpetuated by county officials and other school personnel. The principal of Takoma Park Middle School at the time was so concerned about Blair that he advised academically proficient students not to attend Blair. Gainous also remembers that the Board sent kids who got out of jail or mental hospitals to Blair.

"We needed to clean up the perception of the school," says Gainous, remembering his first years as Blair's principal. "Central Office was sending reform school kids to Blair."

On the rise again

Gainous' arrival was a driving force in Blair's big turnaround. When Gainous first came in 1984, academic and discipline policies were lenient. For example, many seniors were allowed to graduate without fulfilling their four-year English requirement. According to Bunday, Gainous cracked down, failing seniors who did not meet English requirements.

Gainous' dedication to revamping the school, aided by the county's renewed efforts to balance the down-county minority population, was eventually successful. By the late '80s, Blair was on the rise academically. The school had improved its reputation, no longer allowing itself to be the county's junkyard.

According to physical education teacher John Macdonald, who attended Blair in the early '80s and went on to work as a Blair coach and security guard, the programs designed to reduce segregation among down-county schools worked effectively. "The Magnet and CAP have balanced and dissolved stereotypes, changing [Blair's] reputation," he says.

Blair's population problems changed in the early 1990s when the enrollment rate exceeded the school building's capacity. The problem is now over-enrollment, not under-enrollment, and today Blair celebrates its racial diversity. "The Blair community is liberal and open," says Gainous.

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Lily Hamburger. Lily Hamburger, managing sports editor, is a proud senior and back for another year on <i>Chips</i>. Lily is a sports fan, a singer, and a softball player. Her favorite food is macaroni and cheese, favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip and favorite ninja … More »

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