Reflecting on his time at Steele Elementary, especially during his tenure as planetarium instructor, Ralph Sodano describes it as sublime. “Being the planetarium instructor gave me the liberty to create and build.”
BY STACY CRUM DURAN
For decades, Ralph Sodano has been a beloved and respected fixture of the DPS science program, but with near fatal budget cuts to the department, changing priorities, a loss of mechanical expertise related to the repair and maintenance of the planetarium, along with his own health problems, he “felt it wise to put in for retirement.” Most of us have been lucky enough to have been schooled by an instructor whose character, quirks, teaching style and passion for their subject fascinated and inspired us and cemented them in our memories forever. Sodano is one of those master teachers, and he will be deeply missed at Steele and in the district.
He hoped against hope that the planetarium would persevere, however, in typical creative fashion, Sodano compares the saga of the planetarium machine to The Godfather: “It has been repeated to me several times, from several sources, that in 2012 the school board told the science department to keep its hands off the planetarium as long as I was still there. So, the planetarium has been sort of like Fredo Corleone, whose life is dependent on the longevity of Mama Corleone. With my retirement, the planetarium was done for . . . but it never should have been about me.”
“I know that the science department is struggling with a shortage of funds, but everyone is. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to provide rigorous lessons that comply with the ‘latest’ standards . . . not to mention the focus on test scores. But they are the stewards of a program that is treasured by students, teachers and parents alike. It is a program that has educational values and consequences far beyond what is dictated by the latest, greatest testing protocols. It was different five years ago and it will be different five years from now. In contrast to the continuous change in curriculum and testing, the planetarium was a constant, and it belonged to the students, no matter who the current Secretary of State in D.C. might be, or who is directing the DPS science department.” He continues, “What a time to pull the plug on a space-related program, just as China and other countries are poised to send their own manned missions to the moon and beyond. Is there a new space race just around the corner that we are failing to prepare our students for? Maybe it’s time to rent and watch the movie October Sky again.”
“I believe the science department, in short-sightedness, has not only failed to recognize their stewardship of the planetarium, but also failed to recognize that they do have a stewardship outside of and in addition to the prerogatives of the science standards of the moment. Test scores are not science. Science is more than test scores.”
Sodano started teaching at Steele 31 years ago. He brought with him a decade worth of experience teaching science to fourth through eighth grade students. “I had taught night sky and telescope programs both as a teacher and staff member at Camp St. Malo in Allenspark, Colorado, but had never touched a planetarium machine before arriving at Steele.”
In 1982, the student body “was much more diverse . . . Half of our students were bussed in from the Crofton area and many of our students came from families that were housed in the Samaritan Shelter located in the Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. We were called Steele/Crofton back then. It was a complex but wonderful year for me, the class was literacy-based with science four days a week. Science was also included thematically in other subject areas. I’m still so very proud of that class and how much growth there was over that school year, for me, as well. One of my students from that class is in his 13th year as a DPS teacher. I still keep a picture of that class on my desk. “
“When the previous planetarium instructor decided that it was time to move on, she recommended me for the position. Kate Deal was the principal at that time. I wish there was a plaque with her name and face on it somewhere in our building. I couldn’t have designed a better teaching job for myself. It tapped into all my talents: science, art, design, mechanical tinkering and stand-up comedy.”
Sodano credits several principals and educational grants for the past growth of the science program at Steele. For example, a science grant from the AMOCO Foundation that provided instructional equipment for some “amazing hands-on, inquiry-based lessons for fourth and fifth graders,” and Mary Davis, a former principal, who “acquired several grants from the Public Education Coalition that funded fifth-grade chemistry programs.” Another principal, Gail Archambault, offered Sodano a classroom at Steele to start the science lab. “It was her idea, I never asked for that favor. At that point, we also received a grant for laser disc readers to our planetarium projection equipment.”
The legacy of a master teacher spreads far and wide. Sodano cites that many of his former students have become doctors and engineers in various fields. “The daughter of one of our previous school secretaries has become a geologist, in large part, I am told, due to me sharing my obsession with rock collecting.” He continues, “When I was a camp counselor at Camp St. Malo, I had a crazy little camper who was entranced by animal scat, he even started a collection. 10 years later, as asst. director of the camp, I hired that same camper as our nature studies counselor. By being curious yourself, you become a role model.” As a life-long science teacher and observer of nature, Sodano adds, “A pocket lens should go with you everywhere.”
Sodano sums up his career: “What has been the most satisfying for me often comes from students whose faces are lost in the dark under the dome of the planetarium and whose names I will never know. It’s their thoughtful questions and excited interjections that inspired me to keep finding new and better ways of opening my students’ eyes and minds. It’s the faceless voices in the dark exclaiming, ‘Now I get it!’ or, ‘Oh, wow!’ that kept me going. Not infrequently would that astonished voice be from another teacher.”
He is forever grateful to those who have worked to protect the science program over the years. “In 2011, the star machine began to have severe operating dysfunctions. At the same, the district’s science department had lost interest in keeping the planetarium operational. To the rescue came voices of students, teachers and parents from the district. However, the star machine remained fatally wounded. The Swenson triplets, their father Brian Swenson, mother Melinda Wiggins and step-father Andrew Robinson stepped in, providing us with a forty thousand dollar grant to replace the old machine and upgrade the projection system. Their actions were a wonderful saving grace. Unfortunately, the ongoing glitch that has plagued the projection equipment has caused a lot of stress, to the point of contributing to me coming down with a severe case of shingles. I’m mostly healed, but the symptoms sneak up on me when the machine is behaving the worst.”
The closing of the Steele Planetarium is a sad event. Through the years, it has lent our school a certain distinction that will be impossible to replace. Seeing the extensive need for costly equipment and the importance of keeping up with rapidly changing technology, how can community members be surprised or indignant when they perceive shortfalls in neighborhood schools? Appropriately funding our public schools has never been more urgent. A healthy and accessible science program is essential for an informed citizenry and a truly democratic society. We will miss you terribly, Mr. Sodano and we will fight for science education. TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!