School needs help to reach for the stars

Inside Central Cabarrus High School's planetarium, a control panel lies untouched under a large dome in the center of the room.

A "star ball," a device that once projected hundreds of stars on the dome, sits dissembled by a telescope in another room.

The school's Carl A. Furr Planetarium has out of commission for about five years, prompting a group of parents, teachers, alumni and other supporters to try to raise money to restore what was once a defining element of the school.

Budget cuts several years ago took away funding for an astronomy teacher at the school, so science teachers incorporated the planetarium into their curriculums. Then the equipment fell into disrepair, and there was no money for the necessary fixes.

Since then, the planetarium has been used as a classroom, and the equipment that once allowed students to explore the solar system has been gathering dust.

The school was built in 1966, and the planetarium was constructed the following year. At the time, it was the only school planetarium in North Carolina, drawing students on field trips from across the state.

Since its construction, updates have been limited to the addition of about 60 auditorium-style seats. The walls need work, water leaks that damaged the dome need fixing and the equipment needs to be revamped.

"The majority of kids in school today have no idea what a planetarium is," said Shawn Hartsell, an exceptional children teacher at Central Cabarrus who is a member of the school improvement team and the Parent Teacher Student Organization. "We're just trying to make kids appreciate what they have here."

Both the PTSO and the school improvement team have been working to find money to restore the planetarium. They want to open the facility to students as well as to the community by showing movies or allowing civic groups to hold meetings there, said Hartsell.

When the equipment is working, students can explore the solar system and connect with a NASA space program. A satellite on top of the dome is capable of receiving a live feed from NASA.

"We're passionate about turning this back into a planetarium," said Hartsell. "It'll stay the planetarium."

Hartsell said necessary repairs to to make the room useable would cost $2,000 to $4,000. And the equipment would need to be serviced - for a fee - every six months, she added.

Eventually the equipment will have to be replaced, a much more expensive endeavor, said Hartsell. But for now, the focus is on fixing what the school's already has.

"We're willing to start with whatever we can get," said Hartsell.

Cabarrus County Board of Education member Tim Furr said he remembers taking field trips to the planetarium when he was in elementary school.

Restoration of the planetarium is an issue that's been coming up often lately among parents and alumni, said Furr, a 1977 Central Cabarrus graduate. But Furr doubted that the school board could help foot the bill.

"It's probably going to have to come from other funding," he said. "I don't see where there's any money to be used."

The school was recently turned down for a grant that could have awarded Central Cabarrus up to $50,000 to restore the planetarium. Hartsell said she's already looking into other funding options.

A fund to raise money for the restoration project has collected about $600 so far.

Rather than seek funding for a teacher to run the planetarium, the school has considered incorporating it into the school's Air Force ROTC program and allowing science teachers to also use the room.

Furr said restoring the planetarium would help restore the school's identity, which has been affected by the loss of students to the new county schools, Jay M. Robinson High School and Hickory Ridge High School.

"It would give the school something positive," he said. "They could say 'We've got something nobody else has. Something we can be proud of.'"