Students in a computer science class work on projects at CAST Tech.
Students work on projects in a computer science class at CAST Tech. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Helotes. Castroville. Karnes City. Floresville. New Braunfels.

These are a few of the suburbs and outlying towns from which CAST Tech High School draws students to its downtown San Antonio campus.

Overseen by San Antonio Independent School District but funded by various sources, including private industry, the tech-focused charter school is charged with developing a workforce for San Antonio’s future.

“Having a school in walking distance to the downtown tech sector … makes sense,” said Amir Samandi, the school’s director of partnerships. “It’s part of a concerted effort to grow San Antonio’s tech scene. You can’t have that if kids aren’t involved.”

In its second year, CAST Tech has seen its faculty double in size (from nine to 18) to match a student population that now includes both freshmen and sophomores, and design work has been completed on a new 15,000-square-foot building to be built next door. That facility will house the school’s upperclassmen as CAST Tech introduces new cohorts every year.

CAST Tech Principal Melissa Alcala. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

You’re unlikely to find many textbooks or rote teaching methods at CAST Tech. The curriculum is based on a concept called project-based learning. At CAST Tech, the focus is on giving students a chance to have a real-world impact, Principal Melissa Alcala said.

“We’re creating what needs to be done to have a positive impact for the students but also to be relevant to the needs of San Antonio in these [industry] areas as well,” Alcala said.

Those areas include coding, cybersecurity, video game design, business, and entrepreneurship.

CAST Tech is one of three planned or current CAST schools in SAISD. CAST stands for Centers for Applied Science and Technology. A second CAST high school, CAST STEM, opened this fall, and a third will open next school year: CAST Med, for aspiring medical doctors and health sciences researchers.

CAST Tech is creating three career pathways and is in the process of applying for approval to teach new curriculum on user experience and design, known as UX. UX designers manipulate code to change the functionality, behavior, and appearance of a website, app, or other device-accessible interface.

To execute its project-based learning model, CAST Tech has partnered with several private organizations in the high-technology industry, including H-E-B, AT&T, Tech Bloc, Geekdom, Jungle Disk, Rackspace, Root 9B, USAA, Frost Bank, Holdsworth Center, Whataburger, City of San Antonio and University Health System.

Samandi’s role is to coordinate with these organizations to schedule one-on-one mentoring, job shadowing, internships, and hands-on projects. The projects amount to more than just practice for students’ potential role in the tech sector; CAST Tech partners outsource to the students a real-life challenge they face but haven’t had time or resources to take on.

Half of CAST Tech’s faculty is made up of career educators, and the other half brings experience from the tech sector or a related industry.

CAST Tech web design teacher Jonathan Earley is in his first year with the school after spending most of his career developing video games, building websites, and designing digital advertising.

“When I was in high school, there was no YouTube, there was no single person in my town that did 3D animation,” Earley said. “I didn’t know any web designers. They didn’t teach graphic design or anything at my school. For me, I would just go home, pirate the software from a friend, and then I would just play around and experiment and figure stuff out. Being here I’m like, man, I’m actually teaching the stuff that I wish someone would have taught me.”

The high school aptly uses technology to work around some of the challenges created by having a large portion of students driving from outside inner-city San Antonio. Parent meetings are hosted on the video conferencing platform Zoom so parents can participate in meetings wherever they are. Alcala also created a Google Doc for parents to make carpool connections. But to parents, the long slog through traffic is worth prepping their children for an in-demand and well-paying profession, Samandi said.

“We’re talking sometimes an hour of commute time,” he said. “That’s how invested some of our parents are in getting their kids here.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.