More than a decade ago, Fox Tech High School students were taking courses in welding, mechanics, and other technical trades in the campus’ shop buildings. Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, the same basic principles of vocational training will again be used within the 1930s-era walls, but with a modern twist.
“It’s old technology becoming the new technology,” said San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez during a Thursday morning media tour of what will become CAST Tech High School.
Instead of taking apart and assembling engines in the automotive shop, students will more likely be tinkering with the latest coding languages in some classrooms and learning about entrepreneurial business skills from the CEO of a local startup in another.
The technology-focused, in-district charter aims to pour a steady stream of talent into San Antonio’s tech industry and has found a seemingly perfect home in two unused buildings in Fox Tech’s downtown campus, Martinez said.
In addition to expanding SAISD’s educational options and bolstering the tech talent pipeline, the redevelopment of the campus ties into broader public and private plans for the northwest side of downtown, like the emerging tech district surrounding Houston Street and the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.
Martinez likened the Fox Tech complex to that of a college campus, where different “departments” – the forthcoming Advanced and Creative Learning Academy, CAST Tech, and Fox Tech’s established health care and law career schools – will share an existing office space, library, and gym.
“We don’t have to build anything from scratch,” he said, and since it’s about four blocks away from the Tech District it’ll make finding internships and learning opportunities that much easier.
H-E-B committed $3.6 million in seed money for SAISD to hire the best and brightest teachers and administration to develop a curriculum alongside Tech Bloc. A portion of that money will also go towards the the estimated $5 million price tag for renovation of the two buildings that total 46,200 sq. ft.
All three entities are trying to raise money to make up the difference for the renovation project that will be completed in phases and designed by architectural teams from H-E-B and SAISD.
Tech Bloc will be calling on its membership of individuals and corporate partners to contribute both money and time to the school, said the tech and downtown advocacy organization’s CEO David Heard. “We’ll be doing a crowdsourced, grassroots fundraising campaign, but also we’ll be reaching out to the large donors.”
$5 million does not include furnishing the school or the state-of-the-art equipment needed to teach the rigorous, hi-tech curriculum. That will likely come out of SAISD’s budget, Martinez said, and once the school is established, it will sustain itself.
The larger, 31,600 sq. ft. building on the corner of North Flores and Galitzen streets is phase one – where 125-150 ninth graders will start school next year. Eventually, it will host both ninth and 10th grade classes. The smaller 14,600 sq. ft. building, will host 11th and 12th grade.
Less space will be needed for junior and senior classes, said HEB Vice President for Corporate Communication and Health Promotion Kate Rogers, because the plan is to get them to spend more time out in the “real world,” interning at tech companies and taking college courses.
“A big part of what (these students) are going to be doing is project-based learning as well as workplace learning,” Rogers said.
These students will be working side by side with entrepreneurs trying to build products, presentations, proposals, and all the little things that go into creating a startup, Heard added. “It’s not just focused on the school itself but also the entire zone (Tech District) and the experience of working and living in tech in San Antonio.”
While CAST Tech will expand to other locations outside of the urban core, it was especially important for Tech Bloc that the CAST Tech network start here.
“There are other opportunities beyond downtown, but clearly there is an emerging tech scene on Houston Street so priority number one is how do we keep that momentum going? How do we add velocity to it?” he said. “We can branch out and look at other areas of town where I think there are opportunities as well but we’ve got to get our downtown more healthy.”
A high school adds a youthful aspect to the tech ecology downtown and will, eventually, contribute to its workforce, he said.
CAST Tech also adds yet another redevelopment project to the area where several major infrastructure, commercial, and residential investments will be made. The first phase of the $175 million San Pedro Creek project will break ground in September just one block from CAST Tech; local developer GrayStreet Partners is redeveloping its properties on Houston Street; and Weston Urban has been purchasing and developing property in the northwest quadrant to add to its own Houston Street collection for some time. Weston’s projects include the new 23-story Frost Bank Tower and several office and residential projects nearby.
Weston also owns more than three acres directly across from the CAST Tech buildings on North Flores Street, said Weston Urban Co-Founder Randy Smith in a phone interview with the Rivard Report.
There are no specific plans in the works for the property, Smith said, but the current tenant, Sunshine Laundry, has plans to relocate soon.
“Flores (Street) is one of the very few remaining two-way streets that go all the way through downtown north and south,” Smith said, “and that section is of a scale that will allow for true mixed-use with an emphasis on residential.
It was a strategic purchase on Weston Urban’s part, he added.
Sunshine Laundry is nestled between the former Fox Tech baseball and football fields, which will both soon be sold by SAISD.
Superintendent Martinez said they were close to closing a deal with an unidentified bidder.
“We’re going to be seen as ahead of our time,” Pedro said of CAST Tech’s prime location.
“To have the (Advanced and Creative Learning Academy and CAST Tech) programs located on that campus is really a testament to the superintendent and to the board’s ability to get things done in the urban core,” Smith said.
The 1930s era buildings have largely been used as storage since SAISD began centralizing its technical programs at certain high school campus in the 2000s.
“When instructors retired (from Fox Tech),” said Kamal ElHabr, SAISD associate superintendent, “the programs died out with them.”
Highlands, Sam Houston, and Lanier high schools now host a mix of engineering, computer science, networking, architecture and construction, and automotive technology career institutes in the district.
“Our architects at H-E-B got really excited because it’s got great bones, it’s a very solid building structurally, but also it has a lot of natural light,” Rogers said. “It will look dramatically different from what we see today becuase the vision for the new school is (for it) to look like Geekdom or the Open Cloud Academy.”
They do plan on keeping some historic fixtures and quirky details, she added.
Instead of rows of students quietly taking notes in front of a lecturer, students will work together on large projects or at small, “pod-like” stations, she said.
The lottery and interview enrollment process for CAST Tech will be based more on STEM passion than on previous academic performance.
“One of the things we will pay special attention to in this school is the ratio of boys and girls because sometimes we have a hard time attracting female students into the stem field, into high tech careers,” Rogers said. “Maybe somewhere along the way they got the idea they didn’t have the capability to do the math that’s required for those jobs and we want to change that mindset and do what we need to do to prepare female students in particular for those careers.”
Top image: Murals from mechanic and welding classes line the walls in the former Fox Tech High School warehouse/shop. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.