The Career and Technology Education building at Brackenridge High School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Brackenridge High School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

On Nov. 2, 2010, voters approved a $515-million bond to renovate and improve schools in the San Antonio Independent School District. Four years later, some of the most ambitious projects are nearing completion.

The end result started with the debut of the Alamo Convocation Center’s upgraded look and will close out with the completion of the Career and Technology Education (CATE) building at Brackenridge High School.

Located in rapidly changing Southtown, Brackenridge’s almost 100-year history is reflected in the buildings on campus. Many area residents bemoaned the campus’ slow decline, visible in the ranks of shabby wooden buildings along South St. Mary’s Street, evidence of the school’s inadequate facilities and quality learning environments.

The bond awarded $21.1 million to the school for:

  • Renovations to the main building and the new addition, infrastructure (mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems in renovated areas)
  • Repairs/renovations to parking lots and student drop-off locations
  • Underground utilities
  • Storm water control
  • Landscaping and irrigation safety and security upgrades (door access control, additional security cameras, fencing, special-needs accessibility
  • All-weather track and lighting
  • Additional technology for computer labs and classrooms

The most evident campus improvement is the state-of-the-art CATE building, housing Career and Technical Education programs. The eye-catching project, managed by Muñoz Jacobs and designed by Stantec and AG Associates, is a sleek and modern nod to 2010, adding a much-needed contemporary addition to the campus’ architectural timeline.

The portables fronting South St. Mary’s Street still house the world languages magnet program and journalism students (get used to it, journalists). The school plans to get rid of all but three, begging the question regarding economy of space, though the district maintains that it is a work in progress.

Several small, old buildings between Brackenride High School's main building and S. St. Mary's Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Several portable buildings between Brackenridge High School’s main building and South St. Mary’s Street house the school’s world languages magnet program and journalism classes. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Students are keenly aware of the quality of their surroundings, and architectural design has a demonstrable effect on student outcomes. Cutting edge equipment is crucial to preparing students for the competitive job market. Students know when they are using out-of-date technology and working in second-class spaces, and their interest flags accordingly.

In this respect, there can be no question about the new CATE building. It replaced the weathered practical arts building, which now houses student government and dance programs. The career and technical training program at Brackenridge HS has long been built on excellent faculty with industry experience. Now they have the learning environment to match.

The ground floor of the CATE building houses a fully functional print shop, which takes orders from local businesses, as well as some district printing. Students studying graphic design are able to see projects from the beginning to completion. This well-rounded understanding of the process makes them more marketable for entry-level positions throughout the industry.

Printed material fresh off the press from the student-run print shop at Brackenridge High School's Career and Technology Education building. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Printed material fresh off the press from the student-run print shop at Brackenridge High School’s Career and Technology Education building. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It is also home to the 242-member JROTC and its wall of trophies.

“We’ve grown tremendously in the last three years,” said Major John Ladsen.

The program has doubled in size and performed remarkably at regional competitions. Its top graduate last year joined the Corps at Texas A&M University, and the top graduate the previous year was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Most important to Ladsen is the degree of ownership the students feel for the program.

“It’s student-led and student-driven,” he said.

The furnishings in Ellen Bradley’s cosmetology studio are nicer than professional salons. The program is another multi-disciplinary track. Students wishing to learn to cut hair, or work toward a massage license must study all aspects of cosmetology, including manicures, pedicures, makeup, and skin care. Over four years, they accrue 1,000 practical hours and 500 academic hours, making them eligible to test for licensure with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR).

Graduates of the cosmetology program usually begin earning money right away. Some work their way through college, while others gain necessary independence.

“One day, I had students start texting me pictures of cars,” Bradley said.

She was confused, wondering what her former students were up to. Then came the gleeful text:

“How do you like our new ride?”

The girls had purchased their first car with their earnings from their jobs at local salons.

The studio also takes community clients on Tuesday evenings. Call the Brackenridge HS main office at 210-533-8144  and ask for the cosmetology department to make an appointment.

Cosmetology students practice painting each others' nails at Brackenridge High School's Career and Technology Education center. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Cosmetology students practice painting each other’s nails in Brackenridge High School’s Career and Technology Education building. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

For many students, the ability to make money opens up the door to college. Most must blend work and study. The best career and technical training programs help students strategically build their resumes from day one so that the jobs they have in high school lead to careers.

Many of the programs have relationships with community businesses, where students are paid market wages for their services. Rosemary Rodriguez’s culinary arts students work with Holiday Inn on the River Walk and cater school events. The school’s chapter of the Texas Association of Future Teachers (TAFE) has relationships with Bonham Academy and Green Elementary School, enabling students to spend time in the classrooms and graduate ready to work as teacher assistants.

Some programs are ideally suited as springboards into fields with strong local networks. Through a partnership with Rackspace, the Law Enforcement program, led by Clarence Conwell, implemented the CyberPatriot program to teach students about cybersecurity this year.

“It’s a huge area of law enforcement,” Conwell said.

Students can earn up to $50,000 per year right out of high school. They don’t have to leave town to reach higher. UTSA has the leading cybersecurity program in the nation. 

Students in Lupe Vasquez and Jesus “Omar” Gallegos’ business program are encouraged to pursue an advanced degree. With three other teachers, Vasquez and Gallegos teach business administration, marketing, and finance to give students a well-rounded approach to entrepreneurship. Business students run the school store, website, and produce the yearbook.

Meanwhile, to keep students engaged and build their resumes, the program maintains strong relationships with the business community to open doors for internships and scholarships. Students participate in the international DECA competition, which takes some of them out of the state for the first time.

“We’re planting the seeds of entrepreneurship,” Gallegos said.

The Media magnet program will benefit substantially from the facility upgrade. Banks of Mac desktops, 4K resolution production equipment, and a broadcast studio and production facility will make this one of the leading media studios in the state. Students can focus on animation, broadcast journalism, graphic arts, and video cinema.

Robert Blackard’s broadcast journalism students produce an in-house news program for the school and runs all the media for the Alamo Convocation Center.

“The district knew from our expertise that the kids could handle it,” Blackard said.

Like the print shop, they take orders, and students bill out at $7.25 an hour before they graduate. With reel in hand, they have no problems finding employment.

Students work with cameras for a video production class in Brackenridge High School's Career and Technology Education building. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Students work with cameras for a video production class at Brackenridge High School’s Career and Technology Education building. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Every TV station in town has one of our graduates,” Blackard said.

Production work by Brackenridge grads includes a shared Emmy Award with KWEX-TV Channel 41 in 2012. When then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to town in 2011, coverage of the event went up on the White House’s website.

Jorge Hernandez wants to see his cinema students pursuing diverse options after graduation. They have the skills to get right to work and the knowledge to start college ahead of the pack. In the meantime, many pursue passion projects and pick up freelance work.

“We have tons of kids freelancing,” Hernandez said.

Ben Aguilar knows that his animation students are facing a highly competitive field as they go into CGI animation, so while he strongly recommends higher education to help them add nuance to their animations, those who master bipedal characters with emotional range are well positioned to jump into the market.

It’s clear that those housed in the new CATE facility are benefiting from world-class resources in facilities and instruction. Hopefully the presence of such facilities will inspire the campus (even those temporarily banished to the portables) as they see their city investing in their education.

*Featured/top image: The Career and Technology Education building at Brackenridge High School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.