Fostering love and support

By Marsha Sutton

Overuse of the word “amazing” to describe events that fall far short of jaw-dropping, shocking or awe-filled (the amazing sale at Nordstrom; that amazing steak dinner; an amazing hair cut) is one of my pet peeves.

But “amazing” comes close to describing what the organization called Friends of San Pasqual Academy does for the Academy’s foster kids.

Formed in 2003, Friends of San Pasqual Academy was established as a nonprofit 501c3 organization to support the children of SPA. Since then, Friends has grown as word has spread of its heartfelt mission to be a lifeline to the children.

Friends of San Pasqual Academy, based in Rancho Santa Fe, works closely with the school, which opened in 2001 to serve the needs of foster children in the county who have been unable to find permanent homes through adoption.

Governmental agencies responsible for the care and protection of the county’s thousands of foster children have long recognized a critical need for stability in the lives of these youth.

Foster children sometimes attend five or six different high schools by their sophomore year, and suffer from early years defined by poverty, abuse and neglect.

Many children move frequently from one foster home to another, through no fault of their own, some living in up to a dozen different homes. Being continuously uprooted affects academic performance, emotional stability, social skills and dreams for success.

According to the school’s website, many foster youth experience high numbers of home placements, lack fully developed independent living skills, are unable to form lasting relationships with peers and adults, fall behind in academics, leave foster care without earning a high school diploma, and have difficulties finding and keeping jobs. Many end up homeless.

The academic picture is bleak, with studies indicating that 83 percent of foster youth are held back by the third grade, 35 percent are in special education, and as few as 15 percent enroll in college.

It’s difficult for many of us who live securely in warm, stable, loving families to imagine this kind of life, but it’s not so hard to imagine how being a foster child would sap hope, optimism and motivation.

After many years of planning, in 1999 the County of San Diego purchased a 238-acre campus in Escondido in San Pasqual Valley near the Wild Animal Park, with fantastical dreams of renovating the facility and creating a residential school for foster teens.

After two years of modernizations funded through a collaborative public-private-business partnership, fantasy became reality. Doors opened in 2001 and San Pasqual Academy became the first residential education campus for foster youth in the nation.

The facility is licensed to serve up to 184 children, with about 135 students ages 12 to 18 currently attending, all of whom are dependents and under the protection of the San Diego County juvenile court system.

“San Pasqual Academy is a unique program that serves students who have faced challenges many of us can’t even imagine,” said Dr. Randy Ward, County Superintendent of Schools, in an email. “These kids have come from tough backgrounds but never let that stand in their way.

“They’re fighters, and that includes fighting to catch up academically and excel in school. Thanks to collaboration with and support from community and business partners, we are able to facilitate hope for our students and put them on the path to success.”

Normalcy is the goal

The foster teens, however, need so much more than government agencies can provide. That’s where the remarkable work of the Friends of San Pasqual Academy comes in.

The Friends of San Pasqual Academy assists the foster teens to help them become confident, productive, contributing, educated, successful adults, through donations and resources that improve, empower and enrich the children’s lives.

A holiday party sponsored by Friends Dec. 6 provided for the teens an assembly hall filled to the brim with gifts and a “shopping” experience of free jeans, shorts, skirts, dresses, T-shirts, shoes, socks, pajamas, hygiene and toiletry products, coffee mugs, books and school supplies.

More than 30 volunteers from Friends helped set up the holiday party, which also featured a cookie decorating station, photo booth, and raffle with very cool prizes.

Donations to the Friends bought for each of the teens an iPod, a specially created San Pasqual flash drive, plush sweatshirts and sturdy book bags emblazoned with the Friends of SPA school logo, and a $100 gift card to spend on themselves.

Donations put to good use? None better.

For those worried about giving money to charitable organizations, not knowing how the money will be spent, donating to Friends reaps visible rewards. The high emotions the teens express for what Friends does is equaled only by how the donors feel when they see the difference their contributions make.

Watching the kids line up outside the door, eager to come in and “shop,” was in a way anti-climactic. If you expected to see downtrodden children bedraggled and forlorn, you would be disappointed.

These kids are indistinguishable from the middle-class kids we see in our malls and on our streets. They look and sound and dress like our own kids – which is a good thing.

Normal is the goal, and to make the teens feel good about themselves, loved, wanted and accepted.

They are just kids like our kids – until you remember who they are and what they’ve been through. And then it makes you cry.

But they are resilient – perhaps more so than we who gaze upon them with wonder at their courage and fortitude. You make the best of what life hands you, I suppose.

A cake with my name on it

“Holidays are particularly stressful for foster kids, who are constantly reminded of not being able to be in a traditional setting with family members,” said Friends founder and indefatigable leader Joan Scott. “Abuse, neglect and negative memories have been part of their lives.”

Friends of San Pasqual Academy provides invaluable assistance to help these foster teens overcome their history, embrace normality, and become productive adults.

Besides the annual holiday party, the Friends of San Pasqual Academy also provides many other events and gifts, all to make the special students at this most unique of schools feel supported:

• Shop ‘til you drop back-to-school day

• Staff appreciation day

• Spring celebration

• New Year’s Eve party with DJ

• Senior prom

• Graduation brunch and ceremony

• Scholarships for graduates

•Birthday parties and gifts

• sports banquets and awards

• Lettermen’s jackets

• Yearbooks

• Senior portraits

At a celebration honoring the San Pasqual youth a few years back, SPA students expressed their gratitude to donors with words that left many speechless.

One said she had never had a birthday party, and Friends gave her not just a party but presents and a cake “with my name on it.”

Another said about the Senior Prom that Friends provides: “I never saw a tuxedo before. We went to a place called the Hotel Del. I had asparagus. I never ate asparagus before.”

San Pasqual, said another, is “family that doesn’t leave in a week or two.”

Corsage Day by Friends assists students in making corsages for Prom Night. Senior Brunch recognizes the graduating seniors and provides them with basic supplies for college and independent living. Scholarships support graduates in their post-secondary education and career endeavors. And the list goes on and on.

Friends of San Pasqual Academy, led by the enthusiastic and ever-cheerful Joan Scott, is a key component of the support system for these kids, one that provides stability, acceptance, love and guidance.

December is a season of giving, a season of joy, but a season also to remember that not everyone lives as comfortably as we in these affluent communities do.

The dedication of all the partners at the school is impressive. The school’s 95 percent graduation rate is attributed to the hard work and commitment of the teens, the caring staff, and the safe and stable living environment.

But there’s more to it than that for the foster children. There’s knowing that people – strangers – care deeply.

The rewards are clearly a two-way street. Through their tireless efforts on behalf of the kids, the supporters of the Friends of San Pasqual Academy find meaning and great satisfaction in their ability to make a real difference in the lives of these children.

The work of the Friends? It’s truly nothing short of amazing.

For more information on Friends of San Pasqual Academy, call 858-759-3298 or visit Donations can be sent to Friends of San Pasqual Academy, PO Box 8202, Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at

The San Pasqual Academy story

By Marsha Sutton

San Pasqual Academy is a public, four-year, residential high school for foster children, administered under the direction of the San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools.

According to the school’s website, SPA is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and all teachers are fully credentialed. Classes are small, with a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.

To graduate, students need 220 credits and must complete core requirements in English, mathematics, science, social science, foreign language, physical education, a prescribed number of elective credits, and a senior project. The curriculum is based on California state standards.

Because a major part of adolescent development includes extra-curricular activities, the Academy offers yearbook, drama, clubs, dances, Associated Student Body leadership, Spirit Days, assemblies, and a range of athletic pursuits including football, basketball, softball and volleyball.

The facility calls itself “a bridge to knowledge, support and hope” for the foster teens. The goal on the website is “a rigorous academic program, combined with the experiences of a full extra-curricular program.”

“We strive to provide a comprehensive school experience as much as possible, in terms of academics, extracurricular activities and athletics,” said San Diego County Office of Education’s Suzanne Miyasaki, the school’s principal.

The core campus occupies about 50 acres of the expansive 238-acre property and has modern classrooms with computers and technology, a cafeteria, assembly hall, career information center, gymnasium, weight room, health and wellness center, assembly hall, recreation fields and swimming pool.

The residential cottages are considered by some to be the most unique feature of the facility. The spacious family-style homes, which accommodate up to eight youth, offer a common living area, dining area, kitchen, laundry space, youth bedrooms and bathrooms, and a suite for the adult houseparents who live with the kids.

Each teen has a computer, and Internet access is available in the living area. The houseparents have personal space in an adjoining suite, which features a bedroom and bathroom, living room, dining area, and kitchen.

“While each home has basic program rules and regulations to follow, there is flexibility to meet the needs of each youth,” the school’s website states. “Day-to-day family activities in the home include homework, planning and preparing meals, completing household chores, and participating in family meetings.”

Housing is also provided for SPA alumni, school staff, senior volunteers and community members.

In addition to accepting high school students in grades 9 through 12, San Pasqual Academy also takes younger siblings (no younger than 12) in an effort to keep families together. These middle school siblings attend an Escondido public school until they reach ninth grade and can attend SPA’s high school.

San Pasqual Academy is a diverse campus with a rich blend of cultures. According to the website, approximately 33 percent of the students are Caucasian, 31 percent African-American, 24 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 3 percent Native American, and 8 percent bi-racial.

The invitation for placement at San Pasqual Academy is voluntary but is seldom refused. These are children who have rarely experienced a sense of permanence and stability in their lives. Although the facility does not provide legal permanency, San Pasqual offers them a home, with adults who provide long-term relationships and become their “family.”

Miyasaki said foster care is similar to special education “in that you always start with the least restrictive environment.” She said youth are often placed with relatives first (which can be multiple placements), and then perhaps an invested adult such as a family friend, then foster parents (which can be many different homes), and then a group home.

“So San Pasqual is usually is not the first placement,” she said.

The San Diego County Office of Education, which runs the educational side of the residential school (teachers, administration, school equipment, supplies, custodians, teachers’ aides, etc.), is one of four groups that collaborate to bring to the foster teens an array of services.

Working with SDCOE are New Alternatives Inc., San Diego Workforce Partnership, and San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. These four agencies provide academic, residential, work readiness and dependency case management programs and services.

Also assisting in the work is the nonprofit San Pasqual Academy Foundation which, under the leadership of Development Liaison Debby Syverson, has received generous donations that have enhanced SPA’s physical site, including renovations of the living units, cafeteria, technology center, gymnasium, and health and wellness center. A capital campaign is currently underway to add family homes on campus to increase the number of youth who can be accommodated.