San Pasqual Academy to remain open with new foster services

A person walks toward the main entrance to San Pasqual Academy.
(Bill Wechter / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Pasqual Academy, a boarding school for foster children that was slated to close this spring, will remain open and will offer expanded services, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors said Tuesday, Jan. 25.

Nearly a year after the campus received notice of its planned closure, the supervisors voted unanimously to continue running the academy as an educational campus and to develop programs for other groups, including children at risk of entering foster care, unaccompanied minors and youth in the juvenile justice system.

“We’re going to do everything we can legally to make sure the students are there and stay there and continue to receive services and we get more kids in,” said Board Chair Nathan Fletcher. “But we also have the opportunity in front of us to expand to other foster care services.”

Among the services the site may offer are temporary shelter care, short-term residential therapy, intensive mental health crisis programs, transitional and alumni housing for former foster youth ages 18 to 24 and mentorship programs with older adults who live on campus, said Kim Giardina, Child Welfare Services director.

The goal, she said, is “transitioning the campus to a home-like multi-purpose community.”

The 20-year-old academy, located in the rural San Pasqual Valley east of Escondido and near the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, serves foster children ages 12 to 17 in a boarding school setting.

According to County Child Welfare Services, it provides “individualized education, independent living skills, work readiness training, therapeutic services, extra-curricular and enrichment activities,” and often allows groups of siblings to remain together.

California law passed in 2015 ended the use of licensed group homes for foster children and directed social service agencies to place children with families instead. But the school received an exception and was allowed to operate through a pilot program. Then last February the state ordered San Diego County child welfare officials to prepare to close the academy by October 2021.

Supporters and alumni of the campus rallied to fight the order, arguing that the academy is not a traditional group home but a unique program that should receive an exemption or “carve-out” from those rules. In July the board of supervisors voted to extend its operations until June 2022, to allow its 52 students as of August to finish the school year. In the meantime the county began exploring options for converting the site to new programs for foster youth and other vulnerable children.

In August, a group of nine residents, alumni and staff filed a lawsuit against San Diego County and the state of California, asking the court to order the government agencies to continue licensing and funding the school. On Dec. 1, Superior Court Judge Ronald Dahlquist issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from terminating the license for the school.

Dahlquist said the state and county misunderstood the law, and the state is responsible for developing new licensing criteria for the academy. The academy would need to submit a transition plan explaining how it would comply with requirements of the new license. He noted that his decision did not require the county to continue operating the institution as a boarding school , but he reserved the option for supervisors to make that decision.

Supervisors said they were pleased with the opportunity to continue the existing program at San Pasqual Academy while adding new mental health services and transitional programs.

“I can’t tell you how happy and ecstatic I was when the San Diego Superior Court issued the injunction against the state from closing San Pasqual Academy,” said Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents the fifth district in North County where the school is located. “We must move forward and keep hope alive with the old vision as well.”

The board directed staff to solicit bids for foster and mental health services at the campus, with plans to award contracts for up to three years with five one-year renewal options. It also asked county Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to develop a plan for using the site as a multipurpose campus for foster care.