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When Hayfield Secondary School teacher Patricia Allison assumed control of her school’s planetarium two years ago, she was handed the keys to the heavens — with no instruction on how to manage them.

“Basically, it’s really expensive equipment and I wasn’t really comfortable experimenting with it,” Allison said. “I didn’t know the full range of what I could do [in the planetarium]. They handed me 20 keys and said ‘Good luck.’”

Although astronomy teachers describe their planetaria as being the coolest classroom in the school, these mechanical marvels also can be the hardest to run.

Fairfax County is second in the nation only to Dallas in its concentration of planetaria, according to Fairfax County Public Schools. The school system has nine planetaria, seven of which are housed in high schools, one in Hayfield Secondary and the last in Carl Sandburg Middle in Alexandria. The first planetarium installed was at Edison High School, and both that facility and the one at Woodson High School turned 50 this year.

Despite the number of facilities and their longtime use, few teachers within the public school system know how to operate and maintain a planetarium.

“A lot of people have this misconception about what a planetarium does, that you can just walk in and flip a switch and it does whatever you need it to do … like it’s a movie,” said Lee Ann Hennig, an astronomy and astrophysics teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the regions governor’s school for science, technology, engineering and math. “You need to have a trained person to use it, to secure it, and to maintain it for it to be useful in your school.”

Without someone trained to operate a school’s planetarium, the facility can fall into disuse, which was true for Carl Sandburg Middle School.

“The planetarium hasn’t been in operation for a couple of years and there’s been no one there to run it,” said eighth-grade science teacher Daniel De Chagas.

Sandburg’s principal, Terrence Yaborough, is making a push for the planetarium to be up and running this coming fall, De Chagas said. With that in mind, De Chagas — who just completed his first year of teaching — enrolled in a workshop at Woodson High School, where teachers this week played student, learning the mechanics of planetaria.

This is the first year the school system has offered the weeklong workshop, which included lessons in astronomy, using and maintaining the planetarium, cleaning the facility, changing light bulbs, safety and more.

Teachers spent most of the day Wednesday in the dark, literally using red-tinted flashlights to help them take notes. Six teachers signed up for the workshop, with three long-time planetarium wonks teaching the course.

“They are basically learning how to work the machine and how you can make a lesson out of it,” said Herndon High School astronomy teacher Mary Blessing, one of three teachers leading the workshop. “There’s an awful lot of fine tuning to make sure everything is set right, looking right [like the real night sky].”

Longtime planetarium-using teachers like Blessing say they hope the workshop will restore some of the knowledge base lost since the school system cut planetaria program funding in 2009.

Under the fiscal 2010 budget, the School Board voted to eliminate $350,000 in funding as a cost-cutting measure during a tight budget year. That funding included 4.5 planetarium teaching positions, funding for fieldtrip bus drivers, materials and supplies. The shift meant there would no longer be a full-time planetarium director at each of the schools. Instead, the task was added to the duties of a teacher already in possession of the skills to run and maintain a planetarium or to a teacher willing to learn them.

Planetaria were heavily sought after field trip locations for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes until the program’s hiatus.

“Under the old planetarium program, if you were a planetarium teacher, you were assigned nine to 20 elementary schools [usually located near the high school] that would come in every day,” Blessing said. “Since we’re all back in the classroom, there is no time for that. Now it’s a scheduling issue. We don’t have time for all that.”

Hosting community groups — such as the Scouts or private schools — after regular school hours is an option, but requires teachers to give up their personal time to run the visits.

Woodson High School astronomy teacher Steve Brown said he worked with his principal, Jeff Yost, to bundle his classes together so he would have periods within the regular school day to allow for elementary class field trips to the school.

“Some of my [high school] students remember coming into the planetarium as fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. … They mostly remember the planet race,” Brown said, adding the planetarium makes an impression on younger students and is a tool that can fuel their interests in science.

This past school year, Woodson hosted about 75 group visits, of which about one-third were public elementary schools, Brown said. In total, about 4,500 people visited Woodson’s planetarium from September to May.

“There has — in the last three years that Fairfax County has not been able to fund the planetarium [field trip] program here — I heard there was one class that could not come and visit,” Brown said. “The PTAs have really helped out to support this program.”

Thomas Jefferson and Herndon high schools’ planetarium teachers reported seeing a sharp decline in visits since the budget cuts.

Herndon High School, which has 60 students signed up for astronomy classes next fall, had no outside visits this year because of the scheduling issue.

“The one field trip I did have was our Philosophy class where we discussed the origin of the universe and how everything we see was created and by whom,” Blessing said. “Coincidentally, this occurred during my only free period of the day so it worked out well.”

Thomas Jefferson hosts a few visits each year for those elementary schools in walking distance of the high school.

“The outreach that we do for the elementary schools and community groups is just gone,” Hennig said.

The planetarium teachers’ workshop is an effort toward outreach and to make these facilities more accessible to a greater number of educators. Teachers also said it’s a way to create a community of planetaria users, who can call on each other for advice and questions.

“I don’t have a planetarium, but I wanted to know how it works and it’s neat,” said Phyllis Friedemann, Mount Vernon High School geosystems teacher. “[Students] can actually see the motion of the sky like the ancients did. …I tell my students that 150 years ago, you wouldn’t learn this in school. You would already know this.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com