By: Jeanne Russell, CAST Schools Executive Director
When CAST Schools were conceived of by business leaders, superintendents, and civic leaders in 2016, the reasoning was simple:
1) Local industry lacked a steady source of trained people to fill the highest-wage, fastest-growing San Antonio jobs.
2) San Antonio was one of the most unequal cities in America.
The consequences of income inequality meant, depending on where you grew up, you might not have easy access to strong schools, colleges, and universities, doctors and clinics, healthy food options. For young people thinking about the best careers San Antonio had to offer, you might not live near or know anyone who held those jobs or could tell you about them. Income inequality is bad for both the individual and the community. It creates barriers, making it hard to unlock the human potential of our people. At the community level, it stifles economic growth and prevents our city from leveraging the power of our local talent.
The idea then was simple: Make high-quality programs that combined exposure to cutting-edge jobs in high demand in San Antonio accessible across our city. Unlike neighborhood schools, which serve their neighborhoods, or charter schools, which often go where real estate is available, at CAST Schools we worked intentionally with business leaders and school superintendents to identify locations near clusters of industry and in communities where such programs did not exist.
Serving the Needs of Our Community
For example, we built CAST Tech near the downtown Tech district, CAST STEM near Toyota, Zachry, and Port SA. Students at CAST Tech could walk to major employer partners like USAA and Frost Bank. CAST Med was the first medically focused high school on San Antonio’s Southside, next door to UIW’s medical campus. Although UT Health was on the other side of town, it was our first anchor partner, recognizing the need for medical programming to serve the other half of San Antonio.
Our campuses break down the four walls of schooling. We wanted our students to go out to these nearby employers, to job shadow, to conduct internships. And on any given day at any one of our schools, you should expect to see adult professionals offering presentations, mentoring, judging student work, training teachers, and more. In the year before COVID struck, CAST Tech High School was the most visited school in San Antonio, and CAST STEM had just hosted an international delegation from Israel.
We sought to make our schools places where students and teachers presented their work and invited the community in. Though COVID has created some challenges. we continue to make CAST Lead High School, which develops leaders across industries and offers special emphases on retail and hospitality leadership, an event space in the East Central ISD community, a place where students could showcase small businesses, host events, and more, activating and bringing the campus to life while learning real-world skills.
Our CAST Pillars
The four pillars of CAST Schools, relationships, authentic learning, equity, and student voice and agency have helped us endure and succeed during this great test to our education system. In the beginning, our focus on relationships helped our educators maintain close connections to students and families, as evidenced by this study by UTSA’s Urban Education Institute. We were able to shift many of our signature programs, mentoring, guest speakers, our Youth Rally, into an online environment, and the first pandemic summer we had more than 90 students complete summer internships. Many went virtual, and while some employers had to pull out, we welcomed new employers, many looking for young people with strengths in social media and communications, which it turned out our students had. CAST Schools nonprofit board member Dr. Lyssa Ochoa, after taking extreme precautions, invited interns to work alongside her at the SAVE Clinic, offering an unforgettable summer experience – authentic learning at its best. The financial and health challenges of COVID-19 helped us pay attention to individual student needs, as some students at times were the only household members holding a job. Throughout it all, we sought feedback from our stakeholders, and we recognized that no one is better equipped to tell us how we can improve than our students – student voice.
We were so proud of our first graduating class from CAST Tech High School in San Antonio ISD.
Graduating amidst the pandemic, the 152 graduates from CAST Tech and the Advanced Learning Academy earned over $8.5M in scholarships. Over 90% were accepted into a least one college or university and 63% of them graduated with college credit that will save thousands of dollars in college financing. Most are attending regional colleges and universities. These students also earned over 150 industry certifications and almost 50% worked at least one internship while in high school. Many also found jobs that allowed them to use the skills they acquired at CAST Tech, in data analysis, coding, and cyber security, among others, and some employers offered them preferential hiring based on their track record as interns. The challenges faced by our graduates as they transitioned into college and careers have reminded us, once again, how important it is for us to continue those relationships with our students and listen to their feedback, especially in a time of ongoing turmoil.
We have much to celebrate this year as we will graduate our first class from CAST STEM High School in Southwest ISD and open our newest school, CAST Teach, in Northside ISD. As much as our four pillars make us stand apart, it remains our partners who make us successful. CAST Schools were built by the community for the community, and it is that community commitment that truly makes us strong.