Putting a charter school — that is, a publicly funded school that has its own school board and operates independently — on the campus of a tech giant is a new twist on the evolving relationship between big tech companies and schools.
Big Silicon Valley companies have been in a race to shape students’ education and use schools to train their next generation of workers. And companies like Ford Motor Company, in 1916, and more recently, SpaceX, have had trade or private schools on their premises. But until now, none has put public school students a short walk from the chief executive.
Ken Montgomery, a co-founder and the executive director of Design Tech High School, said that early on some parents and school board members asked him: “Is Oracle going to run the school?”
Mindful of such concerns, Oracle and school executives said they had carefully worked out policies governing their relationship in advance. The school will continue to operate independently, they said, with Oracle playing no role in decisions like curriculum or faculty hiring.
The tech giant has made adjustments to make way for the students — like building a separate entrance and bathroom at Club Oracle, its employee fitness center, to accommodate the school’s basketball team.
“Nobody has done anything like this before,” said Colleen Cassity, the executive director of the Oracle Education Foundation, a nonprofit funded by the company. The foundation oversees the company’s partnership with the school.
Design Tech High School, known as d.tech, was founded in 2014 with the aim of steeping students in design thinking, a creative problem-solving strategy popularized by Stanford University’s design school. It teaches students to empathize with people before trying to devise solutions to their problems.
“It gives students a sense of optimism — that the world can be a better place and they can play an active role in shaping it,” Mr. Montgomery said.
The high school opened with 139 ninth graders in a hallway of an existing high school in nearby Millbrae, Calif. The students’ first assignment was to design the classroom layouts. Then they painted the walls and built some of the furniture.
In that first year, Oracle’s education foundation invited the school, along with other high schools, to an event to generate new ideas for the nonprofit. The foundation soon teamed up with d.tech, developing two-week coding, wearable technology and digital design courses that Oracle employees could volunteer to teach.
The next year, Safra A. Catz, Oracle’s chief executive, announced that the company would build a home for the school on 2½ unused acres at its headquarters. Construction started in 2016.
Some parents and school board members initially worried that moving to Oracle’s campus could give the tech behemoth outsize influence over the school. After all, Oracle is best known for its aggressive sales tactics and hypercompetitive founder, Larry Ellison — not for charitable endeavors.
“How do we make sure that we still have autonomy as a school?” Mr. Montgomery said. “We are not just training kids to be Oracle employees or just using Oracle products.”
Oracle reassured the community by embracing the school’s culture, rather than insisting on the reverse.
Using a design-thinking approach, Oracle challenged architectural firms to meet with some ninth graders and faculty from d.tech to get their input before proposing concepts for the building. DES Architects & Engineers, a local firm that won the contract, later held small group sessions to solicit ideas from students and parents.
“It was surprising on a number of levels as to how thoughtful, articulate and how vocal the ninth graders were,” said Dawn Jedkins, an associate principal at DES. “They said: ‘We don’t want it to look like a high school. We want that high-tech corporate look.’”
The curved, two-story school that resulted has a glass and metal facade that looks at home among Oracle’s cylindrical glass office towers.
Along the way, Oracle and the school held numerous discussions to establish each side’s role and responsibilities.
Oracle, which owns the land and the new building, plans to cover maintenance costs like landscaping. It also obtained special licenses to enable its employee commuter buses to ferry students. D.tech is paying Oracle $1 a year in rent and plans to cover operating expenses like electricity and janitorial services.
Oracle has committed more than real estate to the school, prompting the company to develop policies intended to protect students’ interests, Ms. Cassity said.
Oracle’s education foundation offers two-week courses and unpaid internships for d.tech students several times a school year. Should students develop marketable ideas in class, they will have the rights to the intellectual property.
“That would be wrong — to engage unpaid students in something that Oracle later profited from,” Ms. Cassity said. “We are finding our way very carefully and very thoughtfully around how do we provide educational experiences for students where the focus is on really serving them.”
Two ninth graders in a wearable-technology class came up with an idea for a “pickpocket-proof purse” that would set off an alarm if someone other than its owner tried to open it. Oracle employees subsequently contacted a lawyer who agreed to work pro bono to help the students patent their invention, Ms. Cassity said.
Even with boundaries in place, education researchers cautioned that attending high school on a tech company campus could alter students’ education — affecting their ability to think critically about industry products and practices. Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., warned that Oracle could use the school to groom future employees at taxpayer expense.
“I worry about the ethos of Silicon Valley being absorbed by young people at an important developmental stage in their lives,” Professor Schneider said.
Ms. Cassity described Oracle’s education efforts as “pure philanthropy.” She also acknowledged that the company could benefit eventually by hiring d.tech graduates.
“Would we like to have the students be Oracle employees?” she said. “We would love that. But there’s no strings attached.”