It’s hard to argue with success. And that’s exactly what San Pasqual Academy (SPA) has built over the past 20 years, creating an innovative concept to provide residential co-educational care for San Diego County foster youth that allows them to thrive. But now that is in jeopardy as state and county legislators have placed a termination date of October 2021 on SPA.
Even though it is located 40 miles north in Escondido, there are many Coronado residents who have strong ties to SPA and are asking everyone to help by writing letters and signing a petition to save this valuable resource that means so much to San Diego foster care youth. One of those is SPA Board Liaison Debby Syverson, who says, “Foster kids are everyone’s responsibility. We want to provide the same opportunities for these kids as we would for our own children.” SPA Director Tia Moore says, “SPA addresses the needs of the whole child to prepare foster youth for adulthood. We offer opportunities not allotted to them anywhere else.”
On the 238-acre campus, the services and care go well beyond the usual county foster care scope. As the first campus of its kind in the nation, the idea came in part from Superior Court Judge Jim Milligan who was fed up with the cycle he saw in his courtroom of foster children going in and out of homes, and the dire consequences they suffered from the lack of stability. The project to give kids a brighter future was spearheaded by then County Board of Supervisors Ron Roberts and Greg Cox.
What precipitated the mandated closure are changes in state and federal laws and declining enrollment over the past year and a half. Syverson says the numbers are down in part due to COVID, coupled with fewer referrals from county social workers. Currently, SPA has 69 students, down from 139 in 2011. She cites that with more than 2,000 foster kids in San Diego County, many middle and high school age, the security and resources SPA offers would be a big benefit to helping them become successful adults. The staff are dedicated to providing the best programs and offering resources to empower and enrich the futures of the many deserving teens. The average foster child has been in at least six, and sometimes dozens, of foster homes, or in congregate care, known as group homes. And while many of these are good, some are not, and cannot offer the comprehensive services that SPA does.
One of the most frustrating things about this closure announcement is that SPA staff and students were not notified, and first learned of the impending shut down from a newspaper article. After all the outstanding success that SPA has achieved through the years, Coronado resident Ivan Dunn was shocked, as were many others, to see the article about the loss of funding and eminent closure. He was stunned to hear that SPA officials and students were not told about it prior to the article’s publication. “This puts a negative uncertainly for the future of the SPA staff and kids,” he says. “It is always an amazing experience when I have the privilege to help at SPA.”
“SPA is in a unique category all its own,” says Syverson. Being the first of its kind in the nation, the 92 percent high school graduation rate showcases the success of the environment, especially considering the non-foster student national graduation rate average is much lower. She says that county social workers classify SPA in the congregate care category, but emphasizes that it is so much more than the typical group home. Another big advantage is that siblings can stay together as a family. They have an entire campus community of staff and students to connect with for support and encouragement, and even offer specialized programs such as life skills, agricultural programs, a volunteer fire department, and an inter-generational program where retired professionals live on the campus and connect with the kids.
“With a track record of 20 years of incredible success, why would you pull a program just because it doesn’t fit the square mold of every other program with not so great track records,” says Syverson. The model at SPA lets the kids decide if they want to live there and then builds a sense of community. If they choose to stay, the community embraces them with four to eight kids living in cottages with house parents. SPA offers the unique opportunity for them to build lasting relationships and feel secure with a group of long-term kids and a team of dedicated adults and mentors. There are numerous opportunities to discover and attain their dreams, whether it be to play sports, go to college to get an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree, attend technical school, or get a job.
“I always felt that SPA was a unique positive place for foster youth to learn about love, security and respect,” comments Dunn, who got to know the kids while planting strawberries and pulling weeds during Rotarians at Work Day. A 2017 Grand Jury evaluation concluded that, “The academy is a proven success. It is a sound use of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Coronado resident Tom Mitchell is one of many who connected with SPA through Rotarians at Work Day, more than a decade ago. He has been involved in a variety of ways including weeding and planting trees in the citrus grove they call Rotary Hill, and even helping Syverson gather supplies for the staff and children when they were evacuated due to fire concerns.
“Their vegetable garden is amazing and allows them to be mostly self-sustaining. What they do for the kids is remarkable, both for the current students and alumni,” he emphasizes. It’s not just Coronado Rotarians who are involved with SPA, the Coronado Middle School and High School have participated in projects, like putting together toiletry bags for the students.
“A bridge to knowledge, support, and hope” is the motto of SPA, and Syverson emphasizes that, “If you give a child hope, you give them life. There is nothing better than to know that there are people who care about you.”
SPA Partners include: New Alternatives, Inc., Health and Human Services Agency, County Office of Education, and Workforce Partnership. SPA youth also benefit greatly from the non-profit Friends of San Pasqual Academy who provide volunteers and funding for needed projects. The former San Diego Chargers have been involved with SPA providing sports equipment, taking kids to games, and spending time with them.
More info on Friends of San Pasqual Academy at https://www.friendsofsanpasqualacademy.org/save.html.
SPA alumni, who often were in dozens of previous foster situations, say they like that they get to stay for their entire high school and feel secure in the community which feels like home. But unlike the county foster care system, SPA alumni do not age out of the system. Alumni can come back to live after graduation, while they are transitioning to other avenues. Syverson says the connection never stops and alumni are encouraged to reach out for anything to help them going forward.
My family and I have had the opportunity to interact with SPA staff and students on their campus and at our school when playing CIF team sports and have been extremely impressed with the program’s success. Syverson, who has been involved since the beginning and has procured scholarships, prom dresses for the girls, suits for the boys, and provided a myriad of other support says they are advocating for an extension to investigate how to continue operating with the current funding, and looks to the silver lining of potentially making SPA even better.
“I find the kids at SPA have an attitude of gratitude. I would love to bottle the resilience and perseverance that the kids represent,” concludes Syverson.
Here’s what you can do to help save SPA:
- Write a Supporter Plea Letter ~ see examples and contacts at https://www.friendsofsanpasqualacademy.org/save.html
- Join Our Save San Pasqual Facebook Group ⟶
- Sign Our Petition @ change.org ⟶ With a goal of 5,000 signatures
Check out this SPA overview: