New Charles High School Is Reach­ing for the Stars

Of­fi­cials Pro­pose a High-Tech Plan­e­tar­ium

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Me­gan Green­well

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School has a state-of-the-art lan­guage lab.

Thomas Jef­fer­son High School for Science and Tech­nol­ogy in Fair­fax County has a su­per­com­puter.

For its new high school sched­uled to open in 2011, Charles County is think­ing big­ger, bet­ter. It’s think­ing vi­sion­ary. It’s think­ing gi­ant domed plan­e­tar­ium. Not just any gi­ant domed plan­e­tar­ium, ei­ther. This one would have the same techno wiz­ardry as Pixar an­i­ma­tion stu­dios, which in­tro­duced the world to Buzz Lightyear. We’re talk­ing about gi­ant vis­ual lessons on as­tron­omy, cal­cu­lus and physics, wit­nessed from seats that re­cline and swivel 360 de­grees.

And we’re talk­ing about a cost of as much as $10 mil­lion in a county with a pro­jected $10 mil­lion bud­get deficit next year. Who’s to say it can’t be done? “I firmly be­lieve the school sys­tem should be a mar­quee sys­tem in the state,” Charles Su­per­in­ten­dent James E. Rich­mond said of Mary­land’s 10th-largest and sec­ond-fastest-grow­ing sys­tem. “We’ve got to take cer­tain steps to cre­ate a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion.”

Even in a re­gion known for gen­er­ous spend­ing on pub­lic schools, the idea stands out.

Rich­mond said he sees “High School 2011,” the pro­posed school where the plan­e­tar­ium would be housed, as an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate that rep­u­ta­tion. The plan­e­tar­ium-au­di­to­ri­u­menter­tain­ment cen­ter would hold 180 to 200

stu­dents un­der a 50-foot di­am­e­ter Digis­tar 3 dome, said to be the world’s most ad­vanced pro­jec­tion tech­nol­ogy.

By day, school­work would fill up the dome, but by night, rock con­certs and laser shows could draw crowds from South­ern Mary­land. Rev­enue from the pro­grams could de­fray costs; a sim­i­lar fa­cil­ity in Salt Lake City charges $9 a pop for a Pink Floyd light show.

“This could be an en­ter­tain­ment cen­ter for the whole com­mu­nity,” Rich­mond said. “And in or­der to have a world-class school sys­tem, we’ve got to make sure pro­gram of­fer­ings are rich enough and deep enough, and this is a big part of that.”

There are about a dozen plan­e­tar­i­ums in the United States sim­i­lar to the one Rich­mond wants to build, ac­cord­ing to an on­line data­base main­tained by a plan­e­tar­ium sup­ply com­pany. Four are op­er­ated by school sys­tems. Of those, the largest seats 70 stu­dents — less than half the ca­pac­ity of the one planned in Charles.

Each seat in the Charles plan­e­tar­ium would have a touch pad so stu­dents could an­swer mul­ti­ple­choice ques­tions and in­stantly see the re­sults. The dig­i­tal sur­round sound and high-res­o­lu­tion graph­ics would be the best in the world, in­dus­try ex­perts say.

“It re­ally makes you feel like you’re fly­ing through space,” said Dani Weigand, a spokes­woman for the Clark Plan­e­tar­ium in Salt Lake City. “It’s ab­so­lutely amaz­ing.”

The dome would cost about $4.5 mil­lion to­day, a num­ber likely to rise be­cause of in­creas­ing con­struc­tion costs, school of­fi­cials said. Each of the six pro­jec­tors typ­i­cally used in a 50-foot dome runs about $200,000, and the school sys­tem also has to fac­tor in high­end au­dio equip­ment, seat­ing and other ne­ces­si­ties.

“This would re­ally make Charles County the tech­no­log­i­cal leader in the re­gion,” said Judy Estep, as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent of in­struc­tion, in a pre­sen­ta­tion to county com­mis­sion­ers, who have not voted on the project. “This brings the world to our stu­dents in ways most of us have prob­a­bly never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore.”

The high school could cost as much as $130 mil­lion, as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent for sup­port­ing ser­vices Charles Wineland told the com­mis­sion­ers last month. School of­fi­cials are hop­ing for fund­ing help from lo­cal col­leges and mil­i­tary groups that have taken an in­ter­est in the plan­e­tar­ium, but they have not se­cured spe­cific grants.

Board Pres­i­dent Wayne Cooper (D) said that the county’s tight bud­get would present a chal­lenge but that he is com­mit­ted to find­ing a way to fund the project.

“Ev­ery­one is con­cerned about cost, of course, but this could be some­thing re­ally spe­cial,” he said. “It’s all very ex­cit­ing to me.”

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