Looking toward the future of San Pasqual Academy

A car drives on the road leading to San Pasqual Academy
The San Pasqual Academy got more than a reprieve; it is getting new plans for its future, say county officials who
(Bill Wechter/for The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A year after San Pasqual Academy received notice of its imminent closure, the boarding school for foster youth is making plans to expand its programs.

In December the 200-acre campus in San Pasqual Valley near the San Diego Zoo Safari Park received a reprieve from closure, enabling it to continue its boarding school and add such services as temporary foster care, intensive mental health therapy, and transitional housing.

This means not only will the school survive, it will be able to help more children in more ways, advocates say.

“We’ve been really trying to think about how do we maximize the utilization of the campus,” said Kimberly Giardina, Child Welfare Director at the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. “We really want to serve as many youth as possible.”

Although the academy has long been run by the nonprofit New Alternatives, the county recently said it will solicit competitive bids for entities to run all existing and future programs, she said.

Officials with New Alternatives could not be reached for comment.

Its budget this fiscal year is $12.8 million, with about $10.6 million coming from the county. Currently it houses 42 foster youth.

For two decades the campus has been home, school and community to foster teens and children, ages 12 to 17, often accommodating groups of siblings who couldn’t otherwise be placed together.

Students live in townhome-style buildings, known as cottages, usually six to eight students per home. Staff members live in the cottages to supervise them and work on life skills such as meal planning and cooking, Giardina said.

Senior volunteers also live on campus and act as foster grandparents, spending time with the kids, doing crafts and gardening or just talking.

Most teens attend class on campus through a traditional high school program run by the San Diego County Office of Education. The school provides in-person classes on a traditional six-period bell schedule, along with extracurricular activities and sports.

Younger kids go to nearby San Pasqual Union School, a local K-8 campus that serves the neighboring community. Or students can choose to attend the school they were enrolled in before foster placement.

Last February the state ordered San Diego County child welfare officials to prepare to close the academy, citing a 2015 state law that discourages the use of group homes in favor of placing foster kids with families. As the county explored its options for converting the site, supporters and alumni of the campus opposed the order.

In August, a group of nine residents, alumni and staff sued San Diego County and the state of California, asking a judge to order the government agencies to continue licensing and funding the school. On Dec. 1, Superior Court Judge Robert Dahlquist issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from terminating the school’s license and directing it to develop new licensing criteria for the academy.

The San Pasqual Academy.
The San Pasqual Academy
(Bill Wechter/for The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Now the plans for the campus school are a key concern for the alumni who fought to preserve the academy.

Simone Hidds-Monroe, a former student who leads the group Foster Alumni Youth Community Empowerment Subcommittee (FAYCES,) said the county should take steps to increase the academic rigor at the San Pasqual Academy school.

Hidds-Monroe entered the academy at age 13 with her three siblings in 2004. She thrived in sports and classes and graduated in 2009 as class valedictorian. Nonetheless, she said she had a bumpy transition to college and needed some remedial classes to catch up.

“In terms of the academic preparation for college, that could have been strengthened,” she said. “We didn’t have AP classes. That transition for college could have been strengthened for me.”

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in child development from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and a master’s degree in higher educational leadership at San Diego State University, with scholarships from the Friends of San Pasqual Academy.

Conversely, she said, the campus offered little career preparation for students who were not college-bound. She said it should provide trades certifications and technical training for students who want to go straight to work after high school.

Big change

Shane Harris, another alumnus and activist fighting to keep the campus open, said he’s worried that the on-campus school will be abandoned as other services are developed.

“I’m concerned that, with all the angles on the campus, they’ll close down the educational component,” Harris said. “With all of the things they’re going to have on the campus the dynamics are changing, the model is changing slightly.”

Giardina said the academy has room for its traditional program and the new ones.

The campus can house up to 184 students, she said, but it has typically had about half that number. Officials hope to make full use of the campus by providing new services, she said.

One big change will be recruiting foster families to move onto campus.

Foster parents would be able to live there with their own children, if they have them, and their homes would operate alongside the staff-run cottages, she said.

“What that allows us to do is to serve some of our larger sibling sets,” Giardina said. “It can be hard to find foster parents who have the space to serve three, four or five children.”

The facility also will provide temporary shelter for children and teens awaiting placement. It would be similar to the Polinsky Children’s Center in Kearny Mesa, which houses children entering foster care, but it would cater to kids from North County.

County officials plan to introduce a short-term residential therapeutic program for foster youth there, including those who need mental health services. Although the county already has nine such facilities, a new federal law limits the number of beds at each. Adding up to 15 beds at San Pasqual Academy could replace some of that lost capacity, she said.

A separate intensive crisis program could also provide a higher level of care for children with more urgent mental health needs, Giardina said.

“It’s intended to be very short-term crisis stabilization with highly specialized” treatment, she said. “Maybe they have been having suicidal thoughts, and we want to make sure they’re stabilized, getting specific treatment for suicidal thoughts and following any medication recommendations.”

The campus would also provide transitional housing for former foster kids, ages 18 to 24 years old, who have left foster care but still need a place to live. And it would house alumni from the campus in that age group or older, who also require support.

“What we have learned from the last 20 years of the academy is it’s important to really create that community of support for our foster youth,” Giardina said. “They get support with education — making sure they graduate from high school, getting them prepared for adulthood and going to college if that’s what they want to do.”

Hidds-Monroe said it’s crucial for the academy to establish a committee of current and former students who can have a say in how the program runs. For now, she’s celebrating the successful effort to keep the campus open.

“After a year-long battle of fighting to keep SPA open, the conversation is no longer, ‘When will SPA close?’ but instead, ‘What can we do to make SPA the best campus it can be for our foster youth and possibly other youth populations who need support?’” she said.