San Antonio Opens Career-Themed High Schools.
by BEKAH MCNEEL July 16, 2018

Friday, October 26, 2018

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — CAST Tech, San Antonio’s newest public high school, looks like an outpost of Google. Young people huddle over tablets, fiber optic cables run along the ceilings and a cybersecurity lab occupies the basement.

The school, located in the heart of San Antonio’s slowly revitalizing downtown, is just a stone’s throw from some of the city’s big employers. The financial firm USAA has offices five blocks away, and Frost Bank and tech incubator Geekdom are nearby, too. This makes it easy for business executives to pop by — and they do. In its first academic year, the school entertained dozens of local business leaders as guest speakers and, nearly every week, students welcomed tech employees who serve as mentors.

All of this is by design. CAST Tech, which opened in fall 2017 with 175 freshmen, is the first of three career-themed public high schools currently planned for San Antonio. The schools are the brainchild of Charles Butt, a big donor to local education causes and chairman of H-E-B, the region’s largest grocery store chain. After having trouble finding skilled employees for his corporate headquarters, Butt brought together San Antonio school superintendents, business leaders and workforce experts to explore school models that could give students the academic foundation and skills required for jobs in fast-growing, well-paying local industries. Their answer was CAST (which stands for Centers for Applied Science and Technology). The schools are intended to prepare students from across the San Antonio metro area for careers in tech and business, health care and advanced manufacturing. They rely on industry “partners” — 10 so far at CAST Tech — to guarantee students internships and mentorships and to help keep the curriculum current. Students take a mix of core academics and classes such as entrepreneurship and graphic design; in addition, they can earn up to 30 college credits through dual enrollment programs with local colleges.

Modeled in part on California’s High Tech High charter network, business-backed programs in Georgia and South Carolina and STEM programs in Massachusetts, the school are part of a growing push to more closely match the skills students gather in high school with workforce needs. While some educators worry about turning schools into vehicles for job readiness, efforts to integrate technical training and academic education continue to gain traction. A recent White House proposal to merge the education and labor departments into a new Cabinet-level agency, the Department of Education and the Workforce, underscores the popularity of this view in Washington.

In San Antonio, the CAST schools are also one prong of a larger effort by a local school district to promote integration in one of the most economically segregated cities in the country. The San Antonio Independent School District, which will operate two of the CAST schools, is one of 19 school districts in the county and among its poorest. Mohammed Choudhury, who joined the district last year as its chief innovation officer, wants to ensure that these and other specialized schools in his district avoid some of the common pitfalls of school choice.

“Usually when districts launch specialized initiatives around school choice, and resources are put into the school in an urban environment, they end up exacerbating segregation that already exists,” he said. But while CAST Tech encourages applications from across the metro area, it eschews the admissions exams used by magnet schools, and, unlike most charters, is run by the school district. Plus, Choudhury solicits applications from the city’s poorest pockets, and carefully tinkers with the mix of students from low- and middle-income families.

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