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Wired Into the Curriculum

Tech Titans Gave Millions to Start Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, and They Want a Say in How and What Students Learn


You could say Sage Hill School, Orange County's first nonprofit, nondenominational private high school, is being engineered for success.

A significant chunk of its $34 million in start-up funds came from local technology players, including former America Online Inc. executive Stephen Johnson and Inc. founder Scott Blum.

Their fingerprints are all over how students will learn at Sage Hill in Newport Beach, which opened its first phase last month. Once construction is complete, technology will touch every inch of the school, from digital art classes to virtual chemistry experiments to the library's cyber-cafe.

But tech donors also are trying to put their stamp on what students learn--a touchier subject, not just for Sage Hill but for the clutch of new schools and initiatives industry entrepreneurs are backing nationwide.

"It's one of the key issues coming up: Do they want more influence than the Carnegies or the Mellons?" said Trish Jackson, a vice president of education at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington group for fund-raisers. "The answer is probably no, but we always have to work to find appropriate boundaries."

That can be tricky when lucrative relationships hang in the balance.

Blum and Johnson--each of whom has ponied up more than $1 million for Sage Hill--have lobbied hard to add business courses to the school's traditional college prep program.

"None of the high schools here focus on business," said Blum, a gung-ho entrepreneur who runs ThinkTank, a tech incubator in Aliso Viejo. Johnson, who retired from AOL last year, echoed the need to give students a taste of commerce: "Scott and I are co-conspirators on that."

So far, school leaders remain noncommittal, and neither man has made his gift conditional on what courses are taught.

But other Sage Hill backers regard the input from tech executives warily. Blum "won't come in and write the curriculum, but we will listen," said Dori Caillouette, one of Sage Hill's founders.

"We're not just going to be a technology school," said Caillouette, whose father is developer Donald Koll. "This is not just for kids who want to make millions of dollars."

Head of School Clint Wilkins called the give-and-take productive, a way for Sage Hill to tap into technology's energy and new ideas. But tech money will not determine the school's identity, he said.

"Does it drive the curriculum? No," Wilkins said. "Does it influence how we constantly redefine what it means to get a liberal arts education? Yes. But we need to be firm and clear about who we are."

Digital-age patrons have taken a special, and deeply personal, interest in education, making more standoffs likely between them and the educators increasingly hooked on their money, professional fund-raisers say.

High-tech executives have one eye on creating a wellspring of future employees and the other on ensuring the right kind of education for their own children. Problem-solvers and rule-breakers by nature--Blum himself is a college dropout whose pranks got him expelled from Mission Viejo High--they demand hands-on control and tangible results.

"They've been taught to think outside the box," said Susan Guilfoyle, director of development for the Branson School, a private high school in the Bay Area that has just landed a major gift from a top Netscape executive. "The thought that they would reinvent schools isn't surprising--they'd just be doing what they've done all along."

Tech leaders in Northern California have backed a fistful of nonprofits aimed at reshaping education to fulfill the needs of the modern labor market, both by updating classroom technology and by supporting innovative learning concepts. They are also shelling out millions on California ballot initiatives aimed at sweeping educational reforms.

Private schools--especially new ones--offer newly hatched financial titans even more freedom to sketch out an educational vision that reflects their passions. Executives at Microsoft Corp., AOL and other technology companies are backing private-school projects in Napa and Sonoma, Calif.; Seattle; and Washington.

"They will want to imprint their personalities on these schools," said William Rukeyser, chief coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a Woodland, Calif., organization that critiques the use of technology in education.

But don't expect them to support only schools that churn out miniature versions of themselves, Rukeyser said: "These are not cookie-cutter nerds and drones. Their approaches to education are likely to be as varied as they are."

So far, educators seem most comfortable accepting tech donors' involvement, along with their money, when the executives concentrate on technology itself by helping to outfit schools for wired and wireless learning.

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