All 105 students have been bumped from place to place and school to school. Now, though, they have a permanent home in the nation’s first residential campus for foster youth.
The San Pasqual Academy in Escondido is surrounded by rolling hills and has college-style dorms, a swimming pool, an organic farm and state-of-the-art technology. Since 2001 it’s been a place where students can catch up on credits and earn a high school diploma.
It’s home to students like Vanessa who, despite missing five years of school and repeating eighth grade, will receive her high school diploma this spring.
“Worrying about moving someplace, and then moving again within a month, is frustrating and annoying,” says Vanessa. “I improved my vocabulary and my English, because when I arrived here, I didn’t speak good English. The teachers here stay after hours, sometimes until 9 p.m., to help me. They are so supportive. They know we haven’t had it easy; they show us patience, understanding and compassion.”
Her goal is to attend college, become an athletic trainer, and prove the statistics wrong about the likelihood that foster kids become homeless and unemployed after leaving the system. “We talk about that all the time,” she says. “I don’t want to end up pregnant or couch surfing at someone’s house. I want to succeed, to move forward.”
Students, ages 12 to 18, are accepted at the school if they are unlikely to return to their birth families. Students live with “house parents” and are supported by resident “grandparent” volunteers.
Like other schools, there are students with differing abilities, football games and pep rallies, and students laughing in the hallways. But…
“Every single kid would prefer to be in a traditional home,” says English teacher Natalie Priester. “Support from the basic family unit is missing. We try our best, but we can’t always replace that.”
Class sizes are small, with 15 students to one teacher. Most of the students have “gaps” in their education from moving around so much. Some are years behind grade level, so teachers “scaffold” instruction, whereby the teacher models the desired learning strategy or task, then gradually shifts responsibility to the students.
“We have to teach the kids everything,” Priester confides. “They don’t know what they don’t know, like chewing with their mouth closed, how to dress appropriately and how to treat others.”
“The best thing about teaching here is seeing incredible growth in students,” says geography and world history teacher Matt Kruger, whose goal is to make students feel welcome in his classroom and to help them regain trust in adults.
He’s become adept at reading facial cues, so that if students are upset, he can avert an outburst by asking them to take a break or speak to a counselor. “If a student is having a bad day, sometimes they just need some space,” he says. “We try to reconcile problems here before they happen and be proactive.”
Graduation is a bittersweet time, because for some students, school is the best home they have ever known. Students in college often return to San Pasqual Academy during breaks, because they have no other place to go.
“I know what little I can teach them here makes a world of difference in their lives,” says Erendira Ramirez, an English and senior project teacher who shows students how to write résumés, put together portfolios and ace a job interview. “Even today, many students who have gone to college call and ask me for help with something. It may sound corny, but it’s a huge honor to have built up that kind of trust with students.”
“Foster kids here have been through their ups and downs,” says Ralph, a student who will graduate in June. He has learned food service skills at the school and plans on restaurant work while attending college. “We are going through a journey. For most of us living here, this is a good place to be.”
San Pasqual Academy is a partnership of San Diego County Child Welfare Services, New Alternatives, Inc., the San Diego Workforce Partnership, and the San Diego County Office of Education Juvenile Court and Community Schools. Teachers are members of the Association of Educators.
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