Kate Rogers, H-E-B vice president for corporate communications and health promotion, and SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez present a $3.6 million-check to the SAISD Education Foundation for CAST Tech High School during Tech Bloc's one-year anniversary at the Pearl Stable on June 16, 2016. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

The big Tech Bloc celebration at the Pearl Stable Thursday evening turned out to be way more than just a birthday party for the one-year-old smart city advocacy group.

The show was stolen by the “seismic” announcement promised one week ago.

Propelled by a $3.6 million gift from H-E-B and its Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, and Tech Bloc’s vision for creating a vibrant downtown tech district with hi-tech learning centers, the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) will open CAST Tech, a non-traditional high school on or near East Houston Street with a curriculum focused on hi-tech learning.

The street is now home to dozens of tech startups, Geekdom, the Rackspace Open Cloud Academy, and a growing number of co-working spaces.

The announcement of the new tech high school, which doesn’t yet have a home, was made by H-E-B Vice President for Corporate Communications and Health Promotion Kate Rogers.

The new school will open for the 2017-2018 academic year and be the first campus in what Rogers said will be a citywide network of in-district, career-themed high schools with advanced learning curricula. Collectively, the schools will be known as the Centers for Applied Science and Technology (CAST).

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez prepares for a big announcement during Tech Bloc's one-year anniversary.  Photo by Michael Cirlos.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez (center) prepares for the big announcement with Kate Rogers (right), H-E-B vice president for corporate communications and health promotion, during Tech Bloc’s one-year anniversary. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

Interested students will not have to meet any academic requirements to apply for admission. Selection will be by lottery with half the students coming from within the district and the other half from throughout Bexar County. Rogers said the second campus would be located in the Southwest Independent School District and focus on advanced manufacturing.

“The active participation of industry throughout the development of the CAST schools and the student experience is what will set them apart,” said Rogers. “To be successful, we need companies willing to dedicate time and resources to designing curriculum and providing opportunities for real-world experience outside the classroom.”

Tech Bloc Co-Founder and CEO David Heard opened the program at the Pearl Stable before one of the largest crowds ever convened at the Pearl, which spilled out of the Stable and into the plaza area where large canopies were set up for shade and big screens broadcast the event taking place inside. Tech Bloc officials said registration was stopped after a crowd of 1,750 people rushed to reserve tickets for a space that holds a maximum standing crowd of 500 people.

The Stable itself was a who’s who of elected officials, Tech Bloc and H-E-B leaders, and SAISD leadership. Many gathered earlier in the day for a late morning press conference at the H-E-B South Flores Market to give local media an advance understanding of the innovative public-private partnership.

CAST Tech, the first campus in the network, will be located in the heart of the nascent tech district that got its start five years ago when Rackspace Co-Founder and Chairman Graham Weston established Geekdom, the tech incubator and co-working space in his downtown Weston Centre office tower. A few years later his real estate development firm Weston Urban purchased and renovated the historic Rand Building on East Houston Street, and the fast-growing Geekdom became its first tenant, quickly filling the top three floors.

The Rand will soon welcome Google Fiber, which will join Tech Stars Cloud, the Open Cloud Academy, WP Engine, Jungle Disk, the Rivard Report and multiple tech startups.

Weston Urban also is expected to publicly reveal the first design renderings for the new Frost Bank Tower corporate headquarters later this year. The tower is the centerpiece of a public private partnership with the City that includes a number of other downtown buildings and will lead to more than 300 new residential units added to the downtown area between the tech district and San Pedro Creek.

With its $3.6 million gift, H-E-B and Butt have proven once again to be the driving force in the city’s private sector for supporting public school initiatives aimed at producing better outcomes in the inner city. The company’s many initiatives supporting public education include its Read 3 program, its annual Excellence in Education Awards, and its support for Raise Your Hand Texas.

More relevant, perhaps, is the fact that Butt has quietly dispatched H-E-B executives all over the globe in recent years to visit other innovative schools and education initiatives. Cast Tech, in some respects, will reflect what insights they have brought back and can share with SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his team.

“When students are provided with role models and a concrete pathway to achieving their goals, both their motivation and performance skyrocket. It’s important for business and industry to play an active role in providing a seamless path from school to college or career,” Charles Butt said prior to the official announcement. “If we are truly interested in cultivating talent, we’ll need to open our doors to young people and offer them meaningful jobs and shadowing experiences, in addition to internships. The future of our city, state, and nation depends on it.”

Tech Bloc Party

The show opened with Heard working the crowd, and the crowd shouting back, “Hey Dave!” He recalled the group’s first meeting last May at the Pearl and Southerleigh Brewery. What was anticipated to be a small gathering of “maybe 150 people” turned into a crowd of 1,000 people, Heard recalled.

“I put the entire thing on Lew Moorman’s personal credit card,” Heard said. “Lew, I am so sorry. How are the monthly payments going?”

Moorman, the former Rackspace president and the driving force behind the formation of Tech Bloc in May 2015, rallied the crowd before Rogers made the announcement.

Tech Bloc founding member Lew Moorman speaks during Tech Bloc's one year anniversary at the Pearl Stable.  Photo by Michael Cirlos.
Tech Bloc founding member Lew Moorman speaks during Tech Bloc’s one year anniversary at the Pearl Stable. Photo by Michael Cirlos. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

“Tech Bloc was started by a handful of us who were worried about the future of our city,” Moorman said. “At a minimum we have changed the dialogue about what it takes to build a great city, and the City and County have responded. They’ve been great.”

“There is so much happening here now…it inspires me,” he said. “We have more to do…we’re starting from behind…Tech Bloc is here to ease the friction and tackle the big projects.”

Heard then described the importance of the “emerging hot zone downtown,” fast-developing tech district and downtown development taking shape in and around Houston Street between the Alamo Plaza to the east and North Main Avenue to the west.

“What a difference a year makes,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). “I think it’s time for the people of San Antonio to reclaim their downtown.” He then introduced a video directed by Heard that was played and can be viewed here.

“We are so honored to be here, my first Tech Bloc party,” Rogers said. “This is something, David. The project has been a year in the making and Tech Bloc has been a great party.”

Rogers called Martinez a “visionary,” and then announced the CAST network.

“The schools will train students for high demand jobs…students will graduate with a minimum of 30 hours of college credit and with all the choices in the world,” Rogers said. “The very first high school will be called CAST tech and it will be located in the heart of downtown San Antonio.”

Students attending CAST Tech, Rogers said, will graduate high school with an associate degree in computer science, accomplished in concert with the Alamo Colleges, UTSA, and A&M-San Antonio.

“This is going to be a very different high school experience,” Rogers said, noting students will have the opportunity to learn directly from many of the skilled IT workers in the Pearl Stable audience. She was interrupted by applause, but her announcement of the $3.6 million gift brought sustained applause, shouts, and whistles.

“I am so proud of this city and the passion of the people here,” Martinez said after coming to the stage. “90% of our school children live in poverty and they can’t see themselves working at your companies, but what I love about this school is that it’s going to change that.”

After Rogers and Martinez spoke, Heard welcomed Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to the stage. Both received a boisterous welcome from the crowd, the kind of reception officials have received from Tech Bloc ever since rideshare companies Uber and Lyft returned to San Antonio.

In addition to Treviño (D1) Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), City Manager Sheryl Sculley and several members of her senior staff were on hand.

“Tech Bloc sure does know how to throw a party,” Mayor Taylor exclaimed as she looked over the packed Pearl Stable. “I am so excited to be here to wish Tech Bloc a happy anniversary. Congratulations to all of you who’ve been part of this amazing venture.

We are so lucky to have Tech Bloc as a partner—on your birthday, you are giving us presents,” Taylor said. “This high-tech high school is a great gift to our community. Thank you, Kate Rogers, thank you to our school districts, colleges and universities—thank you, Tech Bloc.”

“You’ve come a long ways in one short year. You’ve changed the political dynamic in San Antonio and you’ve energized the young people and showed them you don’t have to be 55 years old to vote and get involved,” Wolff said. “I need your help to create a Geekdom for young musicians and young film makers in San Antonio.”

Wolff said the County wants to build on the success of BiblioTech and build the first “all digital academic library” in this new tech school.

Tech Bloc COO Marina Gavito then came on stage to announce the winners of the three Tech Fuel prizes (Read more: Tech Bloc Celebrates One Year of Unprecedented Progress), which the group launched in partnership with the County. Five companies were selected as finalists earlier this year to compete for the $30,000, $15,000, and $5,000 prizes, and were showcased in a video Thursday night.

Heard closed the show by saying Tech Bloc would make another announcement involving cybersecurity next week, and with that the party was on.

The highly energized crowd was an interesting mix of Tech Bloc members, elected officials, and educators, including SAISD’s Martinez, members of his district cabinet, and SAISD Board Chair Patti Radle and Trustee Steve Lecholop. HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), here for the Democratic State Convention that starts Friday, also was on hand.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro speaks with Geekdom Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez during Tech Bloc's one-year anniversary at the Pearl Stable.  Photo by Michael Cirlos.
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (right) speaks with Geekdom Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez during Tech Bloc’s one-year anniversary at the Pearl Stable. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

Many in the audience and outside were there to celebrate Tech Bloc’s first year of work, others were there in anticipation of the tech high school announcement, and many were there to savor both. The Pearl Stable event was staged to put an exclamation point on Tech Bloc’s busy first year and its growing level of civic engagement. The tech high school announcement proved to be a major bonus.

Tech Bloc, founded by local tech industry leaders as a nonprofit advocacy group last May in the wake of rideshare companies Uber and Lyft leaving San Antonio, has since grown to include more than 2,000 members. It has become a formidable player in working with City and County officials on issues ranging from annexation to using financial incentives to attract and retain tech startups, programming talent, and entrepreneurs.

In its first year, the first CAST campus will open to an estimated 150 freshmen, and scale with the inaugural class as it progresses. Once it is operating at full-scale, the in-district charter school will serve an estimated 500-600 students. The other centers, which will be located in other San Antonio school districts, will follow the same model: half the students will be drawn from the host district, and the other half from throughout the county.

The growing number of in-district charters and magnet programs, and public charters opening new campuses outside the district model, are giving parents more and more non-traditional education choices in the urban core. SAISD also is at work on the Advanced and Creative Learning Academy that will be housed on the Fox Tech High School campus near the northern reach of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project downtown. Martinez said Thursday that demand for entry into the school has been fierce and he expects the same demand for places in the new tech high school.   

“We’re finally giving kids options,” Martinez said.

He hopes to see the return of some who have left for charter schools and private schools with this kind of intense tech focus. The choice of the tech industry for the first campus was based on the assets and goals of the city, as it focuses on the growing industry and its efforts to use that momentum to spur growth in downtown.

CAST Tech will bring a more diverse range of students into that growth, and add high schoolers to the downtown street mix.

“This school will be an educational opportunity like no other in our region,” said Heard. “Locating this school in the heart of downtown’s emerging Tech District will allow kids to get inside San Antonio’s growing tech scene through internships, project-based learning and out-of-classroom experiences.”

The school will offer college coursework, internships for credit, job shadowing, mentoring, summer job opportunities, and guaranteed interviews for graduates, thanks to partnerships with local tech companies and startups. It also will serve as a lab school to train teachers to take high level tech education into the district’s neighborhood schools.

“This is a dream that has been over a year in the making,” said H-E-B’s Rogers.

The philanthropic contributions from H-E-B and Butt will allow Martinez to recruit nationally for the tech high school principal, deputy principal, and a director of curriculum, more than a full year in advance of the school’s opening. Tech Bloc is working closely with district officials so the school’s curriculum will include traditional STEM learning as well as coding and other tech courses tailored to fit the meet the needs of industry. San Antonio employers of all sizes struggle to fill vacancies with qualified IT recruits.

Over the past six months, H-E-B, SAISD, and Tech Bloc have been working on a closely-held common solution to each entity’s needs and community vision. SAISD officials have been hard at work increasing options for their students. Local businesses want a highly trained work force that doesn’t need to be imported from other cities and states. The technology sector, with its focus on creating an energized hub for startups and talent, wants to see more young people and families introduced to such career path options.

Everyone agreed that students in the new tech high school should be rubbing elbows with those who made it.

Tech Bloc CEO David Heard praises one of the tech advocacy group's founding members Lew Moorman.  Photo by Michael Cirlos.
Tech Bloc CEO David Heard praises Lew Moorman and the Tech Bloc team. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

“I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, it has to be in the city’s core,” Heard said.

Heard said that if the new school were placed far from the tech district, it would lose a vital element of education, the ecosystem and collaborative atmosphere where students could “foster connections to others like themselves.” Heard is the primary evangelist for that ecosystem, and hopes the students and their families will be inspired by the downtown experience and return to San Antonio after college.

“Tech, at the end of the day, is not just about a job. It’s about a lifestyle choice,” Heard said.

Many students in SAISD simply do not see themselves in tech jobs. They imagine privileged kids going off to Silicon Valley. CAST will bring competitive curriculum to the schools, and introduce students to the growing tech opportunities right in their district. 

“I came to a district that had everything sucked out of it,” Heard said. “Now, there’s this energy.”

Mayor Taylor served as matchmaker for the project. She heard, as is often the case, three different sectors voicing needs that could be met more effectively through a collaborative effort. H-E-B, SAISD, and Tech Bloc agreed, and began working together.

“My mission has been to say, ‘We must work together,’” Rogers said.

CAST Tech will be small and focused. It will not offer athletic programs or the usual extracurriculars. Because it will make use of blended learning and project-based learning, Martinez and Heard expect the coursework to require after-school time. Students will be encouraged to cultivate their projects beyond basic requirements.

Martinez anticipates unparalleled rigor, especially in math. He plans to spend the next year recruiting top talent in math and technology to serve as master teachers, and people with industry experience to serve in the administration. The principal’s position at the new school was posted on the SAISD website and closed on June 7. The district is now reviewing applicants. No salary was posted, but professionals at the level Martinez intends to recruit will command a higher salary.

“Talent does cost more,” Martinez said.

After the initial investments by the private sector, Martinez expects that the district will be able to maintain operational costs for the school itself. Still, lab schools, by nature, depend on partnership with outside organizations, Martinez said. Keeping subject experts and highly sought-after teachers requires investment.

“We are going to be doing some more fundraising for the lab component,” Martinez said.

Part of that fundraising involves finding a partner organization committed to the school in the way that Trinity University has committed to the Advanced and Creative Learning Academy. After the initial grants to fund Trinity’s participation there, the university has committed to raising its own funds to continue funneling talent into the program. Martinez hopes such a partner will step into the CAST tech program.

Like many inner city public school districts in Texas, SAISD is woefully underfunded. It lacks the property wealth of more affluent districts, and state funding has declined over the last decade. Public and private partnerships are one of many ways that Martinez is trying to leverage every resource for students.

A tech district facility will be another major hurdle for the collaboration. Right now, H-E-B and SAISD are working to find an affordable space in the tech district that meets their needs. Rogers said that they are focusing on two potential sites, both requiring renovation, but not new construction.

Each subsequent CAST site will require buy-in from the private sector to create the specialized training and curriculum. Martinez hopes that the success of the programs will keep the partners invested in the long-term.

“Once you’re partners and this is working, why would you quit?” Martinez asked.

With each team of experts, Martinez plans to then connect a pipeline of talent into other district schools, so that students can experience the enriched curriculum in the high school they love.

“Our students are very loyal to their neighborhood schools,” Martinez said.

In creating special magnet campuses, the superintendent is not worried about siphoning off high achievers from those schools, as many have feared. Instead, he sees the school, as has been true of the Advanced and Creative Learning Academy applications, as a resource for students who do not fit the traditional school model.

In addition to aspirational lifestyle conversations, Martinez sees the practical benefit to elevating the caliber of career training in SAISD. More options mean more kids seeing a connection between school and survival.

As Martinez has learned more about the intense poverty in SAISD, he sees the need to help students understand that going to work and continuing education is not an either/or situation. He tries to help students see that every profession benefits from at least some post-high school education. He wants to help them to make a clear connection between their education and jobs.

“You would say to them, ‘I know you like math, this is how your math class fits in (to the tech field),’” Martinez said.


This story was originally published on Thursday, June 17.

Full disclosure: H-E-B, Charles Butt, Graham Weston, the 80/20 Foundation, and Tech Bloc Co-Founder Lew Moorman contribute to the Rivard Report. See a full list of members here.

Top image: Kate Rogers, H-E-B vice president for corporate communications and health promotion, and SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez present the SAISD Education Foundation award at Tech Bloc’s one-year anniversary at the Pearl Stable.  Photo by Michael Cirlos.


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