CAST STEM High School will take over Building 800 at the Southwest Independent School District administrative complex. Credit: Edmond Ortiz / The San Antonio Report

Students at the burgeoning CAST STEM program are getting more space. Officials from CAST schools and Southwest Independent School District gathered Thursday at the district’s main complex to announce a standalone campus for the program.

H-E-B and its Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, industry partners of the Centers for Applied Science and Technology network, are donating $2 million to support startup costs and renovations to Building 800, which currently houses some district administrative functions. Work on the standalone campus is expected to be complete when CAST TECH gains a sophomore class in August.

When CAST STEM launched for freshmen last fall, ninth- and, later, 10th-grade students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) were scheduled to attend Legacy High School in Southwest ISD, with 11th- and 12-graders – as the program scaled up each year – going to Palo Alto College.

With freshmen and sophomores attending starting in August – and enrollment doubling to 300 total students – Southwest ISD officials said CAST STEM students could benefit from more space to better prepare for the increasing number of careers in energy, logistics, advanced manufacturing and engineering.

The standalone CAST STEM campus will eventually accommodate 600 students in grades 9 through 12. The partnership with Palo Alto will stay in place, but the program’s goal is to have all students at the standalone campus, said Janice Carpio-Hernandez, communications director for Southwest ISD.

Building 800 was the original home of the adjacent Southwest High School. The district plans to gradually renovate the building with input and oversight from the school’s industry advisory committee.

Officials from CAST and Southwest ISD said the new standalone CAST STEM campus will give faculty a chance to develop a master plan in collaboration with industry and higher education partners, permitting them to craft the physical space for specific career and technical pathways that their campus offers.

CAST STEM students can earn up to two years of college credit and industry certificates by the time they graduate.

According to CAST STEM Principal Aja Gardner, it did not take long for district leaders and industry partners to see the growth and long-term value of the program.

“The growth of Legacy High School as well as CAST STEM is happening faster than we anticipated,” Gardner said.

“This gives us the ability to establish our own space and culture. The need (for standalone space) kind of just showed up. The fact that this building exists and is still in great condition was an important factor in our ability to move.”

Allyson Jordan, a current freshman at CAST STEM, talked about her studies in advanced manufacturing technology.

Jordan said at the announcement that group projects and other parts of the CAST STEM curriculum have provided her lessons in more than technical skills. She’s learned about teamwork, leadership and asserting herself.

“Before …  I wouldn’t be able to come up here and speak and feel comfortable. Now, I speak with industry partners and work together with them to help me,” she said.

This school year, Jordan and classmates have taken part in six cross-curricular, real-world projects judged by industry partners.

Projects have included building and programming drones, robots and electric cars. The students participated in various city and statewide STEM competitions.

“Now, everybody has an opportunity, everybody has a role, we all work together to get things done,” Jordan said.

District Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft commended school staff, parents, CAST sponsors and industry partners for helping to make CAST STEM a quick success.

Verstuyft also thanked the CAST network for “its vision and ability to embrace Southwest ISD and work with us to make a system that’s going to benefit our students.”

Kate Rogers, who leads outreach and civic engagement with San Antonio public schools for the Charles Butt Foundation, said the project-based learning model is what makes CAST STEM campus unique and effective.

The $2 million gift from H-E-B and the Charles Butt Foundation brings the total investment from the company and nonprofit to more than $10 million in support of CAST schools.

“To make it cross-curricular, interdisciplinary, to have the children do presentations every six weeks, it’s just really impressive,” Rogers said.

“And (students) are tackling the hardest challenges we all are facing today in our world, things like homelessness and transportation.”

CAST STEM’s planned move to a standalone campus is another milestone for the CAST schools network, which will open CAST Med High School at Brooks this fall.

The Southeast Side campus will focus on helping local students interested in pursuing medical, biomedical research and public health careers. CAST Tech, the original high school campus, operates at Fox Tech High School. Both are in the San Antonio Independent School District.

Julie Bedingfield, public affairs manager for H-E-B, said the CAST school model has in a few years become the industry standard for providing students with comprehensive lessons and real-world, practical experiences, and an opportunity to pursue higher education.

“We have to show that when industry opens its doors to education and vice versa, and when these two converge, we can provide students with these great pathways to achieve their goals and to create a sharper workforce for our community,” she added.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.