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Career-themed schools in San Antonio tackle job skills – and inequality

Donor money and close relationships with business are fueling several new high schools that are trying to lift academically prepared graduates from a variety of backgrounds into well-paying jobs.

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On a recent field trip to the Microsoft Store, a group of CAST Tech freshmen took turns trying out the HTC VIVE Virtual Reality System. CAST Tech is a new career-focused, in-district charter high school in San Antonio. The campus, on the site of the city’s first high school, sits near some of the city's biggest employers.

Bekah McNeel/The Hechinger Report

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CAST Tech, the newest public high school in San Antonio, looks like an outpost of Google. 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. That makes it easy for business executives to pop by – and they do. This past 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.   

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All of this is by design. CAST Tech, an in-district charter school which opened last fall with 175 freshmen, is the first of three career-themed public high schools planned for the city. 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.

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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 schools are part of a growing push to more closely match students’ skills 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 (ISD), 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 says. 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, Mr. Choudhury solicits applications from the city’s poorest pockets, and carefully tinkers with the mix of students from low- and middle-income families.

After having trouble finding skilled employees for his corporate headquarters, Mr. Butt, the businessman, 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 (Centers for Applied Science and Technology). The CAST 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.

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One year in, the approach to economic integration, dubbed “diversity by design,” is working. However, the specialized schools under Choudhury’s purview, including CAST Tech, have met resistance from locals who worry that they are sapping resources from the district’s existing neighborhood schools.  

Choudhury, though, is adamant about the value of economic integration — and the importance of giving low-income students, in particular, access to educational options. This includes the specialized tech skills and business networking opportunities ingrained in the CAST Tech model. 

'A better opportunity'

One school day this spring, a beeping sound comes from under freshman Toney Coronado’s shirt. A monitor she is wearing as part of a PE class project is going off, informing her she has reached her resting heart rate, and cueing her to make a note of her current activity. 

CAST Tech freshman Toney Coronado wants to work in cybersecurity. A member of the inaugural class, she chose the high school because she believed it could give her access to the type of company she wants to work for in the future.
Bekah McNeel/The Hechinger Report

Toney lives in the North East ISD, a relatively affluent section of the city with well-rated schools. But she says she wanted more than strong academics. The 15-year-old also sought real-world experience in her desired career: cybersecurity.

“I thought that CAST would be a better opportunity for me,” she says. She’s always loved the idea of cybersecurity — being a good-guy hacker. Getting a job in that field will require more than just technical skills though. CAST Tech also helps with the nuts and bolts of the application process. Toney recently showed her mom a mock resume she’d been working on in “principles of business,” a required class for freshmen. “My mom was shocked,” Toney says, laughing. “She wants me to help my older brother.”

In addition to her classes in English, history, algebra, and life sciences, Toney will have the opportunity to earn a “Red Hat Certification” in cybersecurity, a competitive credential in the field. 

“They are teaching strong fundamentals,” says Bret Piatt, chief executive of Jungle Disk, a startup cybersecurity firm. The average annual salary at his company is $75,000, well above the median income of families in the San Antonio ISD, which is roughly $32,000, and the $56,000 median in the San Antonio metro area. Mr. Piatt says he plans to recruit from CAST Tech in the years to come.

CAST Med, scheduled to open in the district in the fall of 2019, will prepare kids for midlevel careers in the booming health-care field. Manufacturing jobs, which pay a median local wage of $42,952, are growing quickly too, by an expected 8 percent over the next six years. CAST STEM, focused on advanced manufacturing, will open this fall in the city’s Southwest ISD, a more rural district with a high percentage of low-income students.  

While CAST encourages input from industry partners on the curriculum, so far there’s been no evidence of any concern that the schools are giving businesses too much influence. That may be because, for all the focus on professional preparation, the schools are also giving students the academic education to equip them for college — not just the workforce, say CAST leaders. As more and more jobs require some education beyond high school, Pedro Martinez, who joined the district as its superintendent in 2015, urges all students to consider earning a college or post-secondary credential. At CAST Tech, says principal Melissa Alcala, “We’re trying to prepare them for both tracks.”

Managing attendance

Choudhury acknowledges that companies could see the schools as labor farms for whatever jobs they happen to have, but added the schools’ goal is to educate children for jobs that will help move them out of poverty, not keep them in it. “Let’s not launch these [career-and-technical education] programs to give employers a new assembly line,” he says. 

Another risk, Choudhury says, is complacency about who gets to attend.   

When he arrived in San Antonio in April 2017, after three years with the Dallas public school system, CAST Tech was in the middle of enrolling its inaugural class, Choudhury says. He looked at the demographics and began to worry. By simply opening up admission to all and seeing how “it plays out,” he says, the school was attracting plenty of teens from middle-class families but few from the district’s poorest neighborhoods.

Almost immediately, he began calling low-income families whose children had been admitted but had yet to accept. Failing to follow up, he explains, ends up excluding low-income families who may lack voicemail or the ability to regularly check email. Choudhury personally called families until someone answered. He also began pulling low-income families off the waitlist as spots became available. The result: District data show that CAST Tech’s first class was split evenly between families earning above and below $44,000 per year. Roughly 60 percent are from the San Antonio ISD and the rest are from outside the district.  

Going forward, Choudhury says he and his staff will carefully monitor the enrollment process and promote the schools in neighborhoods with uneven access to internet, social media, and other information platforms, going door-to-door if they have to. Then they’ll hold separate lotteries for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and those who don’t, to ensure that the next batch of students accepted is roughly a 50-50 economic mix. Next they’ll take a closer look at those enrolled to ensure that at least 12.5 percent of students come from the deepest pockets of poverty in the city. When skeptics ask why CAST emphasizes socioeconomic integration, Choudhury points them to studies showing that kids of every income level thrive academically and socially in economically integrated schools.

Building these attractive schools, however, takes money; to get those dollars, the schools needed a rainmaker and found one in Superintendent Martinez. The CAST schools underscore the fundraising success of Martinez, who was hired three years ago from the Nevada Department of Education. In that time, giving to the San Antonio ISD Foundation has risen from $919,520 in 2015 to more than $11 million last year. Gifts to CAST schools since 2015 have totaled $10 million, including a $3.6 million donation from H-E-B in 2016.

But all that giving has come at a price. “My concern is that the district, in its attempt to be innovative, has created all of these specialty schools at the cost of the neighborhood school,” says Candace Michael, who retired from teaching in the district and is now an educational consultant. “They get everything they need or want.”

The district has plans to improve the rest of its schools, filling them with effective teachers, and allowing campuses to apply to become part of Choudhury’s “innovation zones,” whose schools have longer days, weeks, and even school years. Few of these schools are as high profile as CAST Tech, however, and none has the same level of philanthropic investment.

“We have to do high-poverty schools well,” Choudhury says of the existing district schools, where roughly 90 percent of students are low-income. “At the same time, we have to stop recreating them.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.