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Education Matters: Getting adults out of the way

As we agitate for schools to reopen, one school may be closed permanently, if short-sighted decision-makers have their way.

A recent letter from the state notifying San Diego County of its intention to close San Pasqual Academy on Oct. 1, 2021 glaringly exposes how adults in the system are betraying children entrusted in their care.

Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)

Where does the heartlessness come from, to shut down a home for foster children that has a track record of 20 years of success and is for most of the kids the first place they’ve lived that offers warmth and affection – and a real chance at a promising future?

Located in Escondido, San Pasqual Academy is the first residential setting in the nation and was approved by the state’s Health and Human Services Agency 20 years ago.

SPA educates foster children ages 12 to 19 who live on-site with house parents in family-style cottages designed for up to eight children. It also provides a home for graduated alumni when they need a place to return to, during college breaks for example.

According to Music Watson of the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE), 68 students currently live there – 50 are enrolled in the on-site high school program and the rest attend a middle school in nearby San Pasqual Union School District.

The maximum capacity is 184, “but as far as I know, it’s never had more than 125 youth there,” Watson said.

Lots of pieces came together to create this unique program: the County of San Diego owns and operates the facility, SDCOE provides the educational program, and New Alternatives provides the residential program. Additional funding comes from state and federal sources.

Nathan Fletcher, chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, wrote Feb. 28 to SPA students and supporters that the California Department of Social Services made it clear that SPA needs to close by Oct. 1, 2021.

Some, though, say the county needs to push back against the state to keep the facility open.

Public outcry over the decision to close the school may have been the catalyst for the SD Board of Supervisors to include a recommendation on its March 16 agenda to request a nine-month extension from the state, to operate SPA through June 30, 2022.

Approved unanimously after 30 speakers pleaded with the board on behalf of San Pasqual, the extension would cost the county about $1.4 million to cover the loss of federal money which disappeared after funding agencies determined that SPA is not recognized as a proper family setting for foster youth.

Recent claims by influential child welfare advocates say that foster kids are better off placed with a family than in residential settings. This has resulted in legislative changes and funding loss.

But others say that San Pasqual is unique and not comparable to other types of institutional settings. By providing youth with a family environment and house parents in individual home cottages, SPA offers more than a family can.

Besides providing all the comprehensive child-centered services including social and emotional learning and mental health resources, SPA is a WASC-accredited high school with individualized education, career technical education, electives, world languages, math and literacy intervention, UC “a-g” courses, and after-school activities including music, drama, culinary arts and sports.

SPA students say foster homes are not always safe and not equipped to deal with the trauma the children have suffered by being abandoned or abused. Additionally, siblings are typically separated when placed in individual families but can often stay together at SPA.

Calling SPA a special place and a beautiful campus, Supervisor Jim Desmond directed the county’s Child Welfare Services and staff “to take every action possible to get a permanent carve-out for San Pasqual Academy to allow SPA to remain open and permanently to serve foster youth.”

What remains uncertain is whether the state will grant the extension to close the school. And as long as the school is technically destined for eventual closure, it’s unlikely that any more foster kids will be placed at SPA, despite the available space.

Board of Education support for SPA

A resolution to extend the deadline for closure of the facility, presented to the San Diego County Board of Education at its March 10 board meeting, was prefaced by 14 “whereas” clauses that describe how valuable SPA has been in providing a home and education for traumatized kids previously shuttled from one foster home to another.

SDCOE board president Guadalupe Gonzalez said the resolution “is to see if we can continue operating San Pasqual so that we can phase it out on a timely basis rather than trying to rush it which is what’s happening right now. I understand the reasons for it. However, I think it would be too quick to do it by an Oct. 1 end date.”

Trustee Rick Shea, though, said an extension to close the school did not go far enough and that the facility should be kept open on a more permanent basis. “That’s the hope. There can be changes yet. This is not the final decision.”

After a short two-minute discussion in which all five board members seemed to concur that SPA was worth fighting for, they unanimously passed the resolution which asks the state for an extension to allow time to find solutions “that meet the requirements of state and federal law and ensure we are protecting and nurturing the youth who are in our foster care system.”

In a later statement, Gonzalez said, “The resolution’s call for an extension is a first step, not the last. San Pasqual Academy has a long history of serving some of our county’s most vulnerable youth, and we are committed to doing everything we can to continue to help those children.”

In an email after the meeting, Shea said, “I am working on keeping SPA open and not just for the short-term extension. That’s why I made those clarifying remarks at our board meeting. The resolution is but a first step to assure this one-of-a-kind successful program stays open and allows us time to find a solution to keep it open for the long term.”

“Delaying closure is about buying time to figure out the best option for the youth at San Pasqual Academy, which we believe involves keeping the facility operational,” said SDCOE’s Watson.

Friends of San Pasqual Academy

The Friends of San Pasqual Academy [www.friendsofsanpasqualacademy.org] is a nonprofit organization that has provided support for SPA students for 20 years, since the school’s inception.

The Friends has supported the students at the school in countless ways – raising money and donations for school and personal hygiene supplies, shopping days for clothes, special events like back-to-school days and proms, fundraising events, and upgrades to SPA facilities.

Joan Scott, president of the Friends, said Kimberly Giardina of SD County’s Child Welfare Services has been instructing social workers not to place children at SPA, “despite the shortage of foster placements.”

“Foster kids are sitting in short-term, overcrowded facilities waiting for placement,” she said. “This is costing the county and taxpayers far more than being placed at San Pasqual Academy, where there is a spot for many of them.”

The scarcity of foster families, especially those willing to accept older youth, is another concerning factor.

Placements to the facility have been decreasing in the past few years, despite glowing remarks from the county’s Child Welfare Services web page, calling SPA “a stable, long-term placement [that] also offers a comprehensive support system for the youth, including an individualized education, independent living skills, work readiness training, therapeutic services, extra-curricular and enrichment activities, family connections and relational permanency.”

Extending the deadline to close SPA does not go far enough for the Friends and should be viewed as only the first step toward keeping it open.

“We need to keep this home/school open permanently,” Scott said in an email. “San Pasqual Academy is the most cost-effective way to care for our foster kids. Investing in our youth pays off in so many ways.”

“If the supervisors will go to the state and show that this is needed and has been successful, the state will work with them on keeping San Pasqual open,” she said.

Scott said people are outraged, and she urged county supervisors to “fight for us” and “listen to the voice of reason.”

The central issue is how the government defines a group home. By including San Pasqual under that definition, funding was impacted.

“San Pasqual should not be considered a group home, though,” Scott said. “It is far more than that: a home, school and community.”

In a public letter to adult decision-makers, SPA students said the focus is on policies and money rather than the health, education, safety and futures of the foster children at SPA.

“We are survivors of trauma that happened to us with our biological families and in previous foster care placements,” they wrote.

They said SPA offers dedicated adults, teachers, on-site social workers, mental health support, extra-curricular and leadership opportunities, independent living skills, planning for transitional living, and a support system that provides college application and financial/scholarship assistance.

“We are thriving here at SPA,” the letter reads. “Closing the doors on San Pasqual Academy means closing the door on countless foster youth – past, present, and future.”

Lives transformed

Child Welfare Monitor’s Marie Cohen – a child advocate, researcher and policy analyst – challenges the findings that a setting like San Pasqual is not as good for foster kids as a family home.

She cited the facility’s proven track record and widely recognized success and advocates for increased placement at SPA, not less.

A recent San Diego County Grand Jury report “lamented the fact that SPA was operating at only 50 percent of its capacity of 184 students,” she said. “The Grand Jury recommended that SPA be fully utilized to make full use of its life-saving potential.”

“Rather than shutting it down,” she wrote on her blog, “the state and county should be ensuring that it is at capacity and boasting that within their borders lies the most effective foster care program in the country.”

Rex Sheridan, clinical director at San Pasqual Academy, said, “I have first-hand experience witnessing lives transformed, hearts opened back up after years of disconnection, wounds healed after lifetimes of abuse and trauma, siblings reunited after separation, goals reimagined out of hopelessness, skills and knowledge crafted and nurtured out of feelings of incompetence, and new identities and possibilities replacing desperation and fragmentation.”

He called San Pasqual a vibrant community whose presence “over the last 20 years has served as one of this county’s greatest achievements, while its closure would be a stain on the record of all who did not do everything in their power to protect it.”

No matter our socio-economic positions in society, our common humanity demands that we care about these kids – because when adults in the public education and child welfare systems adopt policies that harm children, we all lose.

Kids would be a lot better off if bureaucrats and politicians would get out of their way.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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