New Charles High School Is Reaching for the Stars
Officials Propose a High-Tech Planetarium
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.”