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Commentary: At CAST, Innovation and Resiliency Take the Stage

At our five CAST schools, we believe our students come with gifts, and we can unlock those gifts and build on their strengths.

I remember the open house four years ago when I met some of the first students to sign up for the new CAST Tech High School.

An industry partner asked them: “Who here is the person who fixes the phones in your family?” Hands shot up.

A student who was there, now a CAST Tech senior, told me: “I’ve finally found people like me.” The long drive to school didn’t matter, nor the fact that he didn’t look or dress like his peers — he had found his people.

Local business, education and civic leaders designed this school network — the Centers for Applied Science & Technology, or CAST — to usher a talent pipeline into San Antonio’s highest-paying jobs. CAST Schools partners with San Antonio, Southwest, East Central and Northside ISDs to implement an innovative school model.

Business leaders who recruit from elsewhere wanted to give local youth a toehold into those jobs, knowing that if they could co-design the experience, connect learning to the real world and jobs, they could open doors to those otherwise out-of-reach careers.

From day one, Melissa Alcala, CAST Tech principal, opened the school doors to professionals, who offer feedback as mentors, judges, coaches, advisers and internship hosts.

Timiera “TJ” Jackson arrived in San Antonio in August 2016 with her military family and was not excited about her newest school. But being listened to helped her find her voice — and it is a beautiful one.

“At CAST, the teachers and faculty go out of their way to make sure you feel heard as a student,” Jackson said. “They listen, they take notes, they ask questions. … They don’t look at you as a grade or a number, they look at you as a person, as someone with a voice that needs to be shared.”

CAST Tech, our first school, will graduate its pioneering class on June 11. It is both heartwarming and heartwrenching.

As a freshman, Nathan Cazares read at the fourth-grade level. He will graduate as the first in his family to go to college, with a full ride to Trinity University. He is more than a testament to his incredible work ethic. He is also funny, a talented dancer and a compassionate leader. “Equity,” Cazares said, “means leveling the playing field by giving all students what they need to succeed.”

The 133 graduates have collectively been awarded close to $6 million in scholarships; 76 percent are college-bound in a city where fewer than 50 percent of graduates attend two- or four-year colleges. About 20 percent — 27 students — plan to go straight to work, and the marketable skills and certificates they’ve earned at CAST Tech should command better wages and a chance to advance.

About 70 percent plan to stay in state, the majority in San Antonio, and 57 percent will attend a public college or university. Many plan to work in their field while attending school.

What gives me optimism during uncertain times is how these students have supported each other. “At CAST Tech, we are not friends, we are family,” senior Thomas Gossman, who is Hofstra University-bound, said. “When I fell flat on my face and watched my peers struggle, I always noticed one thing: They were not helped up, they were pulled back up.”

Jeanne Russell is the executive director of the CAST Schools network.

Photo by Ron Cortes

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Copyright © 2021 CAST Schools

 

The Centers for Applied Science and Technology (CAST) Network is a tax-exempt organization as described in Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Service code. CAST Schools are partnership schools with a focus on STEM careers, project based learning and work-based learning. Key partners include public school districts, higher education institutions, and local employers from target industries.