San Diego County seeks to delay San Pasqual Academy closure

Students and teachers walked on the San Pasqual Academy campus during a class change in 2013.
Students and teachers walked on the San Pasqual Academy campus during a class change in 20`13.
(Bill Wechter)

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday, March 16, to ask for more time for San Pasqual Academy, a boarding school for foster children which faces state orders to close by October.

The Supervisors voted unanimously to request an extension that would postpone closure until June 2022 and to seek an exemption to keep it open indefinitely.

Citing declining enrollment and recent changes in state and federal law, California regulators notified San Diego County child-welfare officials in February that they must close the academy by Oct. 1. The decision follows changes to federal law that discourage use of congregate care facilities for foster children, favoring home placement instead.

Supporters of the campus have rallied to save it, citing its success in helping foster children develop supportive relationships with adults, graduate from high school and transition to work or college. Former students said the school allowed them to receive high quality education and remain with siblings instead of being placed in separate homes.

Phil Decter, director of child welfare for Oakland-based Evident Change, said federal laws directing authorities to phase out group facilities are well supported by research showing that children and teens do better with families.

“Nationally congregate care does not have good outcomes,” he said.

However he supports the supervisors’ efforts to extend the timeline for closure, he said, adding that the county should evaluate what successful strategies from San Pasqual Academy could be applied elsewhere in the foster care system.

The campus currently serves 67 students and has seen its enrollment drop in recent years, officials said. County officials acknowledged that the 20-year-old campus no longer fits current foster care practices but they hope to allow next year’s graduating class to finish their school year.

Supervisor Jim Desmond took that a step further, calling for the county to seek a “carve-out” for the school within state and federal law that would permit it to remain open long term.

“I’m actually in favor of the extensions, but I would like to keep it open for foster youth,” Desmond said. “I understand the law has changed, and congregate care is not in favor anymore. But San Pasqual Academy is unique; it’s a residential education. Even though it’s declining in numbers, it’s still a very viable tool in the toolbox for foster kids.”

Supervisor Nora Vargas said she preferred to review the foster care system as a whole before committing to preserve San Pasqual Academy indefinitely. Officials have discussed using savings from the school’s $13 million annual budget to fund improved services for families and foster youth.

“I would like us to have a bigger conversation with foster youth at the county,” Vargas said. “I’m just not ready to say ‘Let’s keep this open forever.’”

Desmond said he agreed with examining the foster care system more broadly while pursuing an exemption for San Pasqual Academy — to keep the county’s options open.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said it’s unlikely federal and state legislators would alter their approach to foster care and permit a long-term extension for the school, but he agreed the board should pursue the possibility.

The Rev. Shane Harris, a former foster child and San Pasqual Academy student who now runs a civil rights group called the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking the state to reconsider the closure. On Tuesday, March 16, Harris commended the board’s decision to seek extensions.

“Today we have taken a step toward reimagining what foster care can look like in San Diego County and beyond, starting with the nation’s first residential educational campus for foster youth, San Pasqual Academy,” Harris said in a statement. “The fight for a carve out to keep San Pasqual in existence in our nation begins now.”

The supervisors voted unanimously to direct the county administrative officer and child welfare services director to seek a temporary extension for San Pasqual Academy until June 2022 and permanent licensing for the facility. They also asked staff to enlist the county’s Child and Family Strengthening Advisory Board, former foster youth and others for help with plans.

— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune