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Seeing Stars: Arlington Unveils Revamped Planetarium

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The exterior of the Arlington County Public Schools planetarium, which will reopen with $400,000 of renovations funded by donations next week. 
Michael Pope
The exterior of the Arlington County Public Schools planetarium, which will reopen with $400,000 of renovations funded by donations next week. 

Students in Arlington are headed back to school and to the county school system's newly renovated planetarium. 

Space: the final frontier. That's what was on the minds of the leaders of the Arlington County School system when it constructed a planetarium in 1970. Alice Monet was a student at Washington-Lee High School at the time. 

"It was the space age. It was the Apollo program," she says. "Everybody was looking forward to the future, and so this was a very optimistic design and reflected that forward thinking." The experience was inspiring to Monet, who became an astronomer.

But over the years, the planetarium, which is on the grounds of Washington-Lee, grew ragged from constant use. The school district's administration determined it would need about $400,000 worth of upgrades. Budget money was tight, so in 2010, the superintendent of schools recommended closing the planetarium and converting it to a classroom. 

Monet was devastated by the decision.

"It was the most unfortunate decision possible," she says. "I was horrified and disappointed and motivated to come talk to the School Board."

Within a month, she and other supporters formed Friends of the Planetarium. The group formed a board of directors and started meeting with school officials. The school agreed to keep the planetarium open part time for a year if the group could raise the funds to improve it.

"We came to an agreement with them that over the course of the next year they would have a chance to raise the money with different points along the way, and if they were not successful we would go ahead with our plan to close the planetarium," says Assistant Superintendent Connie Skelton. 

So Friends of the Planetarium started raising money — a lot of money. They raised more than $400,000 within a year. They presented a check to the Arlington School Board last year and construction began at the facility. 

Now, after years of effort, the newly renovated planetarium is about to open with a new high-tech digital projector. The facility has a wow factor that grabs the attention of students, Skelton says.

"A lot of our kids don't even see the stars hardly with all the ambient light that we have in Arlington, so it's just an opportunity to take a little time, sit back and realize that there's a lot more to the world and the universe than just Arlington," she says. 

The planetarium is set to open next week. 

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