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Piner High School's new science building features a Geographic Information Systems classroom, wind turbine, planetarium and observatory. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Piner High's science center to be unveiled Friday

Piner High School's new $3.6 million science center will be officially unveiled Friday night in what school supporters hope will be a glimpse into the future of the Fulton Road campus

The open house and dedication ceremony will give the community a chance to see inside the planetarium, observatory and classrooms that students have been using on a limited basis this school year as the finishing touches have been put in place on the two-year project.

"To me, it's an outward symbol of where we are trying to move with our school," Principal Sally Bimrose said.

Teachers are developing a "coordinated curriculum that emphasizes science and technology," she said. "It's a bigger picture for Piner High."

Construction on the 4,000-square-foot building — officially known as the Science Position Astronomy Research Quest Center, or SPARQ — began in May 2012. A state grant covered $1.6 million of the cost, while local matching funds were culled from an array of sources, including redevelopment fees, developer fees, a 1991 bond and career technical grants. No general fund dollars were used, according to district officials.

A nonprofit foundation led by parents has been established to help keep equipment up to date and to link Piner's students and teachers with industry leaders and local scientists.

"It's a state-of-the-art building. I don't know another high school in the nation that has a building like this," said Rui Gregorio, president of the fledging foundation. "The SPARQ Center is going to be a real good catalyst to say where that school is today and where it's going in the future."

The 100-seat planetarium can be converted into a theater or presentation space. The 30-station computer lab can host the school's award-winning geographic information system courses or a lecture space for guest speakers. Solar panels and 2.5-kilowatt wind turbine pump energy back into the grid. The observatory with retractable roof and a 12 1/2-inch PlaneWave telescope could host public star-gazing events.

"This is nobody's classroom," said Kurt Kruger, a science teacher at Piner who, along with fellow teacher Kristi Erickson, has been a vocal spearhead for the center's creation. "It's a facility for everyone."

"To me, the facility is more like a college-type facility," he said.

The opening comes at a time Piner is at a crossroads.

Facing declining enrollment and faltering test scores for years, Piner has seen its student body dwindle to nearly half of what it was when Kruger joined the staff 25 years ago. Today, there are about 930 Prospectors.

With school choice, students who live within Piner's enrollment boundaries have for years opted to enroll at other Santa Rosa City Schools campuses or leave the district altogether.

But backers say the dramatic glass-front building, coupled with renewed emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math courses, could become Piner's shining star.

"I don't think in any way we have tapped its full potential," Bimrose said. "To me, it truly represents the future of education."

Supporters say they hope the SPARQ Center will represent the future of Piner High, as well.

"I think it will help Piner's reputation because people say Piner is a poor school. This helps people think otherwise," sophomore Brandin Christou said. "Not many schools can say they have a planetarium at school."

The science center and the programs teachers are developing to engage students in both technology and core subjects like physics and geometry could become a powerful draw for both the science-minded student and those interested in emerging technology, Kruger said.

"We no longer live in a world where we can sit here and wait for kids to show up at our door," he said. "All that we really ask is, come here, see what we have, and if you like it, come to Piner."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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