Sanger Education Complex aims to be point of community pride

Construction of the Sanger Unified School District’s education complex moves along with the opening of two more buildings this summer

New construction on the north end of Sanger West campus. (Kenny Goodman)
New construction on the north end of Sanger West campus. (Kenny Goodman)
Serena Bettis
Published July 7, 2023  • 
11:00 am

SANGER – The vision for a robust, engaging academic hub continues to develop as the Sanger Education Complex grows.

The campus, which is a part of the Sanger Unified School District (SUSD) despite its Fresno street address, opened its first academic building in 2020 and will see two more buildings become operational before the end of summer. 

The school district has years to go before this project, which is nearly a decade in the making, fully comes to fruition. Even still, members of Darden Architects, the design firm working with Sanger Unified, say the complex is already showing its dynamic potential.

“I think that this facility is a testament to what can be achieved when a school district has strong leadership and a strong vision,” Matt Heiss, a Darden architect and principal working on the complex, said. “These facilities can’t be built if there’s not community support and excitement for them, and so it’s not only a testament to Sanger Unified but a testament to the community of Sanger itself that they’re building a facility like this for their kids.” 

Once it’s complete, the Sanger Education Complex will include a junior high and comprehensive high school, two gymnasiums, a student commons, an administration building, a black box theater, multiple athletics fields and tennis courts, an aquatics center, career technical education (CTE) facilities and a district performing arts complex.

By the end of July, construction on the first portion of the Sanger West High School will be complete with a three-story academic building and a single-story, stand-alone administration building. This allows the complex’s first building – which has been used by the inaugural classes of high schoolers since it opened – to transition to the junior high academic/administration building.

Mike Fennacy, an architect and partner with Darden, said the district wanted to build the complex in phases because they didn’t have the student population to fill a junior high and high school immediately. Opening the Sanger West High School first allowed the district to alleviate overcrowding at Sanger High, and now as developers build more homes and families move to the area, the campus will be able to operate two schools.

Within the next four months, construction will begin on the rest of phase two, which will include a two-story athletics complex and the student commons. Fennacy said those facilities will open in 2025. There’s no clear timeline yet on completion of the subsequent phases, which include the CTE facilities, the aquatics center and the performing arts center, because construction will be dependent on bonds the district can receive from the state of California. 

Heiss and Fennacy said they have been working diligently on the details for each building that will eventually be included in the education complex. The aquatics center, CTE facilities, performing arts center and a second recreation center gymnasium have all been master planned already.

Heiss said they met with SUSD weekly for a full year to prepare the educational specifications for the complex plans to meet state requirements and get a good understanding of “how the district envisioned educating its students for the next generation.”

Fennacy, who also serves as a board member on the California School Facilities Research Institute, said that architects at Darden have spent a lot of time traveling the country and the state to see other schools and determine “what makes 21st century, next generation learning work.” What came out of that was the goal, shared by Sanger Unified, of “trying to build the most cost-effective, results-oriented education facilities in the nation,” he said. 

Sanger West from the south end of campus looking north. (Kenny Goodman)

For Sanger, that looks like a campus that is not only beneficial, practical and welcoming to its students, but is something the whole community can take pride in. 

“One of the other things that we’ve really been trying to incorporate into all of our work … (is) to create a brand and a school identity from day one for those students and that community,” Heiss said. “So you know what the school colors are, you know what the mascot is, you know right away when you’re stepping on campus what the campus is about.” 

Heiss said they can achieve that by incorporating design elements that don’t necessarily cost a lot more money but are thoughtful and intentional.

Having a “curb appeal” that not only makes students and parents, but the rest of the community, proud of the school is beneficial to the district as well. Fennacy said that nice facilities help attract top-tier teachers, which is especially important in the current economic climate.

Other, more unique considerations the design team took into account include the features of the future two-story competition gymnasium and the aquatics center. 

The gymnasium will have a practice gym, an indoor track, a weight room, locker room, team rooms, student activity space and three full-sized competition courts.

Heiss said the idea for a two-story, stadium-style gymnasium stemmed from considerations about poor air quality in the Central Valley, as well as a need for students to be able to continue to train and exercise on days when they would otherwise be instructed to stay inside. The main competition court will feature two floors of bleachers, with the track circling the outside of the upper set of bleachers.

The aquatics center, which won’t be built until phase three of the education complex plan, will eventually have two Olympic-size pools with back-to-back grand stands in between. This way, spectators could easily watch different swim meets happening at the same time in the different pools.

The pools will be built in phases, and one will feature a floating platform that can divide the pool. Fennacy said that will allow for a shallow section, shorter in length than the rest of the pool, where people who are learning how to swim can feel more comfortable. 

“This district really wants to have an aquatic center not only to help their community, but also be a resource for water polo and swim events in the valley,” Fennacy said.

Fennacy said that Eduardo Martinez, deputy superintendent for Sanger Unified, has also really helped drive the vision for the district and the education complex. 

“There’s so many wonderful school districts we work with in the valley, and they put so much trust in us, that we really appreciate the great people that we’ve worked with in the valley and in Sanger Unified,” Fennacy said.

A time lapse of the Sanger Education Complex’s construction progress is available to watch at the Sanger West High website.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter