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Sonoma Academy set to break ground on $26 million expansion

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Sonoma Academy, founded with the support of some of the county’s wealthiest families, is about to break ground on a $26 million expansion funded by private donations.

The only independent college-prep high school in Sonoma County is building “Grange and Studios,” a project that will include space for dining, commercial and teaching kitchens, and studio classrooms for shop and visual arts classes and projects.

The 22,000-square-foot building will be a place to dine and also teach students about food networks and their relationship to the economy and the environment, according to Head of School Janet Durgin.

“We’re building out threads of our curriculum, teaching our students to understand food doesn’t just come to you on a tray,” she said Thursday.

The lessons will be supplemented with a flower and herb garden and fruit trees.

The studios will be where students explore film, video production and broadcasting, engineering and robotics, computer graphics and animation.

Durgin said 92 percent of the students take calculus and the studios will be a place to apply some of what they learn to maker projects and engineering.

“We want the opportunity to use math and science in hands-on, engaging and relevant ways,” she said.

Sonoma Academy sits at the base of Taylor Mountain in southeast Santa Rosa, with an 1,100-acre open-space backdrop. The $30 million, 34-acre campus opened in 2008, with funding from the late wine industry titan Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, along with other benefactors that included "Toy Story" creator John Lasseter and his wife Nancy.

For seven years prior, the school was located at the Luther Burbank Center north of Santa Rosa.

School officials did not identify the source of the funding for the new project other than to say it was provided entirely through private donations, largely from family of students or past alumni.

The high school, with an enrollment of 284 students this past academic year, states that all of its graduates are college bound, with 86 percent of 2015 graduates accepted into one of their top three choices.

About 85 percent of the faculty holds a master’s degree or higher, and the classes have a low average size of 15 students.

Sonoma Academy boasts the highest average SAT scores in the county — 1844 — but also has the highest annual tuition rate, $38,700 for 2015-16.

But half of the families also get tuition discounts based on financial need, with an average award of $20,000 per year.

Durgin described the $2.4 million endowment as small.

School officials said they expect to get a grading permit next week to break ground on the new project, which is scheduled to take 13 months to complete and be ready for occupancy by the start of the 2017-18 academic year.

The new building is designed to exceed LEED platinum certification and be net zero energy efficient with a “living” roof, gray water recycling and other key sustainability features.

The project is the first of a two-phase expansion planned at Sonoma Academy. Phase two entails construction of a 450-seat performing arts theater and conservatory, but requires additional fundraising.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas

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