The current debate on school choice misses the point – especially for high school students.
I am a huge proponent of school choice. Choice is important for parents. But it is especially important for students.
The very first choice students – and parents – make is the one to come to our schools. At CAST Schools, we designed our schools to give young people in San Antonio a chance to connect to the high-demand, high-wage careers in our community in concrete, hands-on ways. But our commitment to choice is much greater than that.
The journey from childhood to adulthood is very much about learning how to make increasingly consequential choices about your life, and to understand the consequences of those choices, ideally in a safe space so you can continuously learn from them. As parents we know this, and from a very young age, we give our own children safe options (controlled choice) so they can learn from the natural consequences of their inevitable mistakes.
At CAST schools, we encourage students to explore what they may want to do for a living when they get older – one of the most consequential decisions of their lives. They first choose a school based on a career sector – tech, engineering & manufacturing, medicine, retail, hospitality & e-commerce, and education. We offer learning in a real-world setting, because like adults, many young people get a better feel for what they want to do through an experience versus a book or a lecture.
At our schools, we push students to make all kinds of choices about what they do, the pathway they select, the projects they choose, the problems they want to solve, their mentors and internships. Each choice is a chance to learn a little bit more about themselves, and sometimes they may learn what they don’t like rather than what they like. As they think about their future job, real-life experiences aren’t only about technical skills, but whether they like to work outdoors, or in a team, they enjoy public speaking or networking.
We have as many examples of what happens when young people make important choices or test their interests in a hands-on setting as we have students at CAST Schools. Presenting a project to help seniors avoid being scammed, CAST STEM Junior David Saucedo Hinojosa reflected on the importance of students being allowed to select their project topic. “Choice for us is important, because when we become an adult, that’s all we’re going to have – choices.”
Choice is about choosing at every level; it can also be about feeling chosen. At CAST Teach High School, Principal Ericka Olivarez matches every student to a leadership or speaking opportunity she believes will stretch them. We have a saying across our CAST Schools: “all students have gifts; our job is to unlock them.”
At CAST Schools we have a student advisory, bringing together 5 students from each of our 6 campuses. Principals identify students who represent all types of students at their schools, not only those who have claimed leadership roles. Recently, we took our students on a global leadership trip to Mexico City, where they met with a Mexican Congressman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a leader from the United Nations, and top executives from GM & Coca-Cola.
Driving back from our final session with an international journalist, I thanked the students for representing both CAST, and our country, so admirably.
CAST STEM Junior Victor Hernandez was quick to respond. “Well, you chose us for a reason.”
Jeanne Russell is a passionate advocate for student voice: “We learn the most when we stop to listen to students, and put their needs at the forefront.” She began her career as a classroom teacher and became a reporter examining education before joining two San Antonio Mayors to lead their education policy agenda. Her commitment to equity grew out of her early experiences in Oakland, the California Central Valley, East Harlem and Guatemala, where she also learned to listen to students and give them ownership over their learning. She has led the conception and design of many signature San Antonio education initiatives, including Café College, PreK4SA, Upgrade and SA Works. She is the founding executive director of CAST Schools, a nonprofit school network dedicated to closing the gap on income inequality and nurturing San Antonio’s homegrown talent. Co-created as a regional partnership between independent school districts, higher education institutions, and local employers, CAST offers a new model of teaching and learning alongside industry professionals committed to connecting students with high-demand, high-growth, high wage jobs. She led the San Antonio Youth Commission to present the first youth-informed public policy agenda to City Council, also introducing the regional civics fair Speak Up Speak Out to San Antonio. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California-Berkeley, a master’s degree in education from the University of California-Davis and a joint master’s degree in journalism and Caribbean and Latin American Studies from New York University. Her daughter is a CAST Alumni and her son is a student at a CAST School.