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.