In a bedroom papered with pencil sketches, honor roll certificates and verses by rapper Tupac Shakur, Mishelle Holbrook nonchalantly ticked off the 12 previous foster families and group homes she had been assigned to since she entered San Diego County’s foster care system.
“They say I have an attitude, but I’m just determined and feisty,” said Holbrook, 17, who authorities said was removed from her alcoholic father eight years ago.
In October, she entered the San Pasqual Academy, a 2-year-old boarding school in the green foothills near the San Diego Wild Animal Park that accommodates a small number of the county’s foster children.
For the first time, Holbrook began earning straight A’s. “This place is different,” said Holbrook, who graduated last week. “I have my freedom. I have my own room -- a big room. I can work on my life.... “
San Pasqual aims to provide stability for foster children like Holbrook and prepare them for college or jobs after graduation.
The county Health and Human Services Agency, the county Office of Education and several nonprofit groups, including New Alternatives Inc. and San Diego Workforce Partnership, collaborate to run the academy.
San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox said the idea originated five years ago after he heard six former foster children speak at a conference on the foster care system.
“What stuck out in my mind was, in the case of these kids, they were moved 10 to 30 different times,” Cox said. “I kind of felt ... we need an alternative for these kids.” Supervisor Ron Roberts came to the same conclusion, Cox said.
The two supervisors were prompted to push for the boarding school because of a shortage of foster families, the diminishing likelihood of adoption as children get older, and statistics showing that many former foster children return to the county’s assistance programs or wind up in jail.
The county bought the San Pasqual property, formerly a Seventh-day Adventist Church boarding school, for $15.5 million in 2000. Corporations and private donors have given millions of dollars to renovate the facility.
Officials say children at San Pasqual cost San Diego County the same amount as any other foster children. The state funds San Pasqual, as it does all public schools, under a formula based on daily attendance.
In the planning stages, some children’s advocacy groups fiercely opposed San Pasqual because they believed the county was “warehousing” children and giving up on what they saw as the most desirable outcome: adoption.
“It seemed like a bad idea to us,” said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “Why shouldn’t kids live in a family? Why in some special group together? It seemed to us ... quite stigmatizing.”
The Youth Law Center also objected to a plan to rotate foster parents. However, Shauffer said she was now more comfortable with the current, smaller facility, which places the teenagers with live-in families.
With the goal of expanding to 250 beds, San Pasqual is home to 110 dependents of the San Diego Superior Court on a ranch fronted by orange groves. About 40% of the children referred by judges and social workers end up attending San Pasqual, said Debra Zanders-Willis, the county children’s services official who oversees the school.
She said San Pasqual generally accepts children who are emotionally stable and academically motivated.
“Inappropriate” candidates would include youngsters with serious mental health problems, recent histories of assault, suicide attempts or substance abuse, she said. The school also rarely takes children whose parents or families are actively working toward reunification.
Once at San Pasqual, the children live in eight-person cottages, supervised by staff members and a resident foster family.
Nine adults recently moved into houses on the property. In exchange for reduced rent, they mentor the children 10 hours a week.
Jacqueline Nichols, 53, said the students have been very warm and interested. The other night, as she and her husband shared dinner at a student residence, the students asked the Nicholses what they did for fun when they were teenagers.
“I was telling them, skating, bowling and house parties,” Jacqueline Nichols said, laughing. “Someone turned on the stereo system and turned on ‘70s music and I thought, ‘How did they get that?’ ”
Teenagers attend the academy’s on-campus public high school, which follows a standard core curriculum and offers electives such as drama, computer multimedia and film studies. Students can also play interscholastic sports.
“We’re just like any other public comprehensive high school,” said Principal Bobbie Plough. “We’re just smaller.” The seven teachers also have experience working at alternative schools or with at-risk youth.
All of this year’s 19 graduates have plans for college, Plough said.
Sofia Thayer, who was co-valedictorian, balances schoolwork with a job in an Escondido clothing store and will attend nearby Grossmont College. The 17-year-old researched business schools on the Internet and said she hoped to transfer to San Diego State after a year.
“I’ve always wanted to wear a suit and carry a briefcase and be able to go to Red Lobster or Benihana’s on a Friday night,” she said.
County judges said they liked San Pasqual’s approach.
“We’ve changed as a system overall, focusing on education, wanting more kids to graduate from high school” and to be prepared to live independently, said Susan Huguenor, supervising juvenile dependency judge. “I think it’s a very nice option.”
Public and private agencies around the country, including several in Southern California, are following the progress at San Pasqual. “I think San Pasqual is a hopeful example,” said Andrew Bridge, managing director of child welfare reform programs at the Broad Foundation.
Bridge said the county should never give up attempts to find permanent homes for these teenagers or to reunite them with their relatives. Still, he applauded San Pasqual for trying to help the children who are unlikely to find permanent homes before they leave the foster system at 18.
A couple of teenagers who have graduated from San Pasqual will remain there until they figure out their next steps.
David Sanders, who heads the Child Welfare Agency for Los Angeles County, said a San Pasqual-type school could also work in Los Angeles if it demonstrated improved academic achievement, job preparation and independence.
Mishelle Holbrook can’t wait to get out on her own. She keeps a list of places she wants to visit and professions she wants to pursue. This spring, she intends to start classes at San Diego City College and major in criminology or sociology.
“One of my favorite songs by Tupac is ‘Baby Don’t Cry,’ ” she said. “It goes, ‘Baby don’t cry. You got to keep your head up. Even when the road is hard, never give up.’ ”