Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The inaugural class of CAST Tech High School students walked into their first classes Monday morning, beginning an education aimed at teaching tech and business skills that define the industries of the 21st century.
"I'm stressed, but excited," freshmen Carter Leblanc said. LeBlanc is part of the in-district charter school's 175-member student body, which is divided evenly between individuals selected from inside SAISD and Bexar County. LeBlanc said he wants to study and develop skills in video game programming.
"I haven’t really had much experience," he said. "It’s something I realized I would want to do in the future and I want to learn more how to do that.”
The Centers for Applied Science and Technologies, or CAST Tech, was developed through a public-private partnership among SAISD, Tech Bloc, H-E-B, and other supporters. The school brings new life and innovation to the previously vacant vocational shop buildings on Fox Tech High School's downtown campus.
"We're preparing the upcoming workforce and creating a pipeline here in San Antonio," Principal Melissa Alcala said. "This workforce of the future [will] help keep San Antonio thriving in the way it's supposed to be."
The school's downtown location puts it in close proximity to the city's emerging tech district, home to many industry leaders and innovators. In their first two years, students will attend classes on "A/B block scheduling" to prepare them for university-style class schedules. During their last two years, students will spend half of their school days at internships that could potentially lead them down career paths directly following their high school education.
"Our students can walk to a lot of the nearby business partners that we have for this school, and so they're going to be able to do some job shadowing this year," Alcala said. "But also every student this year is going to have a one-on-one industry mentor for them, and so that person will be coming out to visit them once a month."
Geekdom, Tech Bloc, USAA, H-E-B, AT&T, Rackspace, University Health System, UTSA, and Jungle Disk are among the industry partners that have expressed interest in assisting students in developing pertinent technology skills, and will reportedly offer opportunities to work directly on projects within their organizations.
For Don Davis, one of CAST Tech's computer science teachers, such partnerships lend a practical aspect to the lessons he'll be teaching in the classroom.
"[Students are] going to look at the industry in San Antonio. They’re going to reach out to our industry mentors, find out what the skills are that go along with computer science in San Antonio," Davis said. "And more importantly [students will] look at the identities, the people behind those skills to find some personally and culturally relevant role models."
Students accepted to the new school do not necessarily have backgrounds in tech. While they'll eventually be instructed in cybersecurity, coding, gaming, animation, and digital media, Davis said they will go through several courses introducing them to the foundations of computer science.
"This is a super general introduction," Davis said. "Because we're building a base this first year, we're going to do a slow introduction."
Along with school-wide introductions to computer science, students will be introduced early on to business instruction in informatics, banking, finance, analytics, business administration, and entrepreneurship.
"The international business plan is going to be the most difficult," said business instructor Brian Goethe, who will be teaching the principles of business through year-long projects that introduce students to the kinds of entrepreneurial ventures that created the industries they'll work in.
Incorporated into the international business project are smaller projects that build upon each other. Students will have to design and pitch products to attract investors – similar to the format used on the popular TV show Shark Tank – and then create sales and marketing plans.
When the Rivard Report spoke with Goethe in his classroom, he was putting final touches on his first-day preparations.
"We were working right up to the last minute," he said.
The building itself, with ceilings left open to show students the hardware and wiring providing the school's internet connection, was developed in less than one year. During that time, the decision to change principals before the start of the school year led to a lawsuit against SAISD, new principal Melissa Alcala, and Jeanne Russell of Mission Street Consulting, according to a report published by Texas Public Radio. Mission Street Consulting lists CAST Tech and its corporate supporter H-E-B as clients on its website.
Kelly Isbell, who was announced as the tech school's inaugural principal in December 2016, filed a lawsuit on Aug. 8 claiming that Alcala and Russell conspired to remove her from her forthcoming role. She is seeking $1 million in damages. According to the TPR report, Russell and the district have yet to receive the suit.
This wasn't a concern for Karrie Leblanc, who was full of enthusiasm as she dropped off her son for his first day at the new institution.
"I’m really excited because he’s super excited," Leblanc said watching her son approach the staircase where students gathered before classes started. "Putting him into an environment where he can thrive and everyone else is also like him with the same goals, it’s totally worth it."
"The experience of being at a new school and high school," Carter replied when asked what he was looking forward to in the coming year. "Learning about stuff that I would love to do in the future.”