Starry role for Val­ley busi­nesses

They’re rais­ing $250K to re­turn Dieruff’s plan­e­tar­ium to use.

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jac­que­line Palochko

What once seemed like a reach for the stars is now be­com­ing a re­al­ity for the Al­len­town School District.

Lo­cal busi­nesses have stepped up to pay for the $258,000 cost of re­open­ing the Dieruff High School plan­e­tar­ium, now to be known as the Learn­ing Dome.

It’s wel­come news to district ad­min­is­tra­tors and school board mem­bers who have wanted to re­open the long-shut­tered plan­e­tar­ium, but couldn’t find the money to pay for the equip­ment up­grades.

Busi­nesses, led by Lee Butz of Butz Con­struc­tion, have raised $225,000 so far.

At a re­cent school board meet­ing, district solic­i­tor John Fre­und an­nounced that his law firm King

will donate $5,000 to­ward the Learn­ing Dome.

“All the peo­ple who have pros­pered from Al­len­town are now giv­ing back,” Di­rec­tor Robert E. Smith Jr. said. “This is a dream come true.”

The Learn­ing Dome, slated to open next school year, would be used for not only as­tron­omy, but also for sub­jects such as ecol­ogy, en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence, ge­ol­ogy, bi­ol­ogy and anatomy.

The equip­ment would in­clude a SciDome that comes with soft­ware show­ing stu­dents a three-di­men­sional uni­verse that al­lows them to ex­plore stars and gal­ax­ies.

Stu­dents also could ex­plore ar­eas such as oceans and the hu­man body. The dome would come with doc­u­men­taries and cur­ricu­lum for teach­ers to use.

The re­vamped plan­e­tar­ium, seat­ing 35 to 45 peo­ple, will be open to the com­mu­nity. El­e­men­tary schools could take field trips to the fa­cil­ity.

“This is a good thing not only for the school district but also for the city,” said Brandy Sawyer, di­rec­tor of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics for the district. “This will open a lot of doors for the com­mu­nity.”

Dieruff’s plan­e­tar­ium, which opened in 1965, has been closed since 2010, when teacher Gary Becker re­tired af­ter al­most 40 years in the po­si­tion.

There have been ef­forts to re­open the plan­e­tar­ium. In 2016, the school board voted to add a plan­e­tar­ium teacher to the bud­get.

Around that time, district ad­min­is­tra­tors an­nounced plans to re­vamp the plan­e­tar­ium into the Learn­ing Dome by us­ing a dig­i­tal sys­tem.

But the district even­tu­ally de­cided that re­open­ing and up­dat­ing the equip­ment would be too costly.

When the district faced a $28 mil­lion deficit last year, district ad­min­is­tra­tors said they needed a grant or a long-term part­ner­ship to fund the re­pairs the plan­e­tar­ium needed.

Other Le­high Val­ley dis­tricts have plan­e­tar­i­ums. Beth­le­hem Area’s Free­dom High has one for stu­dents tak­ing as­tron­omy elec­tives. The district’s Broughal Mid­dle School in south Beth­le­hem has one for stu­dents’ elec­tives. Stu­dents in the East Penn School District use the plan­e­tar­ium at Em­maus High School.

Since Al­len­town’s closed, Smith has heard from lo­cal alumni about the fond mem­o­ries they had in Dieruff’s plan­e­tar­ium. He has made it some­what of a per­sonal quest to make sure Al­len­town re­opened it, so cur­rent and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents could en­joy the same mem­o­ries.

At school board meet­ings, Smith pub­licly pushed the dis­Spry trict to give up­dates on the Learn­ing Dome and find so­lu­tions to pay for it.

In May, Smith said he wasn’t giv­ing up, but added “it’s just ag­gra­vat­ing that it’s tak­ing two years.”

Butz read about Smith’s frus­tra­tion with the fund­ing for the Learn­ing Dome in The Morn­ing Call and called other busi­ness lead­ers to see what they could do, he said.

He felt as though busi­nesses and lead­ers should rise up to help the district, he said.

“With all the won­der­ful things hap­pen­ing in the city of Al­len­town with devel­op­ment, the one re­main­ing chal­lenge we have is the suc­cess of the Al­len­town School District,” Butz said. “This is some­thing that is re­ally im­por­tant to the con­tin­ued devel­op­ment.” The plan­e­tar­ium could serve as a source of pride for Al­len­town stu­dents, too, Butz said.

“It’s also go­ing to be a won­der­ful learn­ing tool,” he said.

Butz would like to see the busi­nesses raise $450,000 to en­sure the longevity of the Learn­ing Dome.

Some busi­nesses have al­ready pledged two- or three-year do­na­tions, Butz said. The district also re­ceived a grant from the Harry C. Trexler Trust to help with the costs.

The district is re­ceiv­ing per­sonal do­na­tions for the Learn­ing Dome that are be­ing han­dled by the Al­len­town School District Foun­da­tion.

For Smith, the fi­nan­cial help from the com­mu­nity shows that oth­ers want to help Al­len­town School District stu­dents.

“I’m so happy,” Smith said. “Ev­ery­one worked as a team.”

“All the peo­ple who have pros­pered from Al­len­town are now giv­ing back. This is a dream come true.” — Di­rec­tor Robert E. Smith Jr., Al­len­town School Board

MON­ICA CABR­ERA/MORN­ING CALL FILE PHOTO

Dieruff High School's plan­e­tar­ium has been closed since 2010, when teacher Gary Becker re­tired af­ter nearly 40 years in the po­si­tion. It is now likely to re­open next school year.

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