Founder of Silicon Hills News

IMG_3439To cultivate a high tech industry, a city needs highly skilled workers.

Yet almost every city in the country faces a shortage of workers with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math skills.

And San Antonio is no exception.

“San Antonio children face a crisis: only 63 percent of public school students graduate high school and, by national standards (ACT or SAT), only 9 percent of them graduate college ready,” according to Choose to Succeed.

To improve those statistics, the nonprofit organization has recruited and supported the nation’s highest performing public charter school operators to serve 80,000 San Antonio students by 2025.

To discuss “Innovation in Education,” Choose to Succeed hosted a panel Tuesday at the Pearl Brewery.

Richard Whitmire, author of On the Rocketship, moderated the panel featuring Jarrad Toussant, vice president of Rocketship Education Texas, Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools, Lorenzo Gomez, executive director of the 80/20 Foundation and Geekdom and Carri Baker Wells, board chair of the San Antonio Independent School District Foundation.

“What you have seen at public schools is an evolution of choice,” Wells said, citing magnet school programs, in district charter schools and public schools with programs specializing in architecture, engineering, business careers and health careers.

“You can see across our public schools how they are trying to reach the desires and wants of families with choice while preserving that which has been great within public schools,” she said.

Competition is spurring public schools to up their game, Wells said.

“But it can’t do it alone,” she said. “This city will never be a strong education city without a strong public school system.”

Yet Charter schools disrupt education by teaching kids better and cheaper than traditional public schools, Torkelson said. IDEA Public Schools plans to have 20 schools with 14,000 students by 2017 in San Antonio, he said.

Nearly 100 percent of its students get accepted to a four-year college or university, he said.

“It’s not just about more money and more resources,” he said. “It’s about a fundamental redesign about the way we do public education to improve student outcomes.’’

High tech businesses in San Antonio see the need for more highly skilled workers, said Gomez with Geekdom and the 80/20 Foundation and formerly with Rackspace.

To meet the needs for Geekdom and 80/20 Foundation, Gomez hires workers through Elance and oDesk to complement his staff of two employees at the foundation and four at Geekdom.

His virtual assistant in Bangladesh does WordPress, programming and backend database troubleshooting for $4 an hour, Gomez said.

“That’s what our students are up against,” he said. “They are being blasted by people who have superior skills in the marketplace.”

Efforts are underway to improve the skills of the local workforce.

Last year, the 80/20 Foundation worked with SAISD to bring CodeHS to Highlands High School to provide an introduction to computer programming class to 450 freshmen students. The program continues next school year.

“Technology is a second language just like everything else,” Gomez said. “Students need to get it as early as possible and as fast as possible.”

Gomez mentioned Netscape Co-Founder turned Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen’s article “Why Software is Eating the World” as evidence of why students need programming skills. No industry is immune to the cannibalization of software, he said.

“Students that have these skills are going to be the students that win,” Gomez said. “The city that can produce these skilled students wins too.”

One of the biggest impediments of having ubiquitous computer programming education in the schools is the lack of qualified teachers to teach students, Gomez said.

Wells with SAISD agreed.

“You’ve got to have the talent in the classroom,” she said.

And businesses have a responsibility to drive innovation in the school system, because schools can’t do it on their own, she said.

Blended learning models integrate technology with traditional direct instruction to customize a student’s learning experience.

In San Jose, the schools leverage adaptive online programs to reconfigure the schedule to teach students each week, Toussant said.

“Real-time changing of the structure of instruction that wasn’t happening year to year. It was happening week to week,” he said.

“On state standardized tests, Rocketship is currently the highest-performing low income elementary school system in California, and its students are performing like those in nearby affluent suburbs such as Palo Alto, providing its ability to close the achievement gap,” according to a new release. “Rocketship is in the process of applying for a Texas charter, with plans to open its first school as early as the fall of 2015.”

Blended learning is catching on in San Antonio.

At Geekdom, Gomez mentioned Codeup, a 12-week program to teach nonprogrammers how to code. Codeup guarantees a student will find a job within six months of graduation or they will refund half of the $10,000 program fee. The program uses seven instructors but also has an online element.

At Highlands High School, the CodeHS program is a web-based program. Teachers can help students, but also the software has remote mentors who can help kids when they get stuck.

Gomez stressed the human element is still essential.

“If you lean too much into the software, you become the matrix,” he said.

Also, if you lean too much into the hardware you run into problems, Torkelson said. He mentioned Apple computers in the ‘80s, laptops in the ‘90s and now iPads as technology saviors for schools.

Google Glass is the next big transformative tech for schools, Toussant joked.

“There is a danger of this faddism,” Torkelson said. There isn’t a magic bullet that is going to save schools, he said.

“It still comes down to transformative classrooms teaching students and remarkable leadership at the principal level,” he said.

And for further reading – check out San Antonio Charter Mom’s review of Richard Whitmire’s book “On the Rocketship.”