What is different this time around is that the business community - not the government - has become the standard-bearer for change in schools, and is backing its demands for better schools with millions in grants and thousands of hours of expertise. Networking giant Cisco Systems has established "academies" in thousands of schools in all 50 states.

Manpower, the staffing company, funds a one-year program to train high schoolers in computer networks. 3Com Corporation trains students to become network administrators. Hewlett-Packard uses grants to encourage elementary schools to upgrade their science programs.

United Technologies sponsored the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program to help minority high schoolers in Hartford improve math and science skills. In Austin, Texas, local high-tech businesses assist area high schools in developing better tech courses. In San Diego, Gary Jacobs, son of Qualcomm chairman and CEO Irwin Jacobs, donated $3 million for a charter school named High Tech High. In hundreds of other communities across the nation, businesses encourage high- tech literacy through mentoring and by offering early job experience.

Why are high-tech businesses investing millions in schools? Self-interest. They are among a growing number of companies dissatisfied with high school graduates' knowledge and worried that their future workforce won't be adequately educated for the information economy.

Tired of facing shortages of qualified workers - or spending billions to train workers on the job - American high-tech businesses want to recruit engineers and other tech-ready workers at home. To do so, they need workers who are ready to meet the demands of an increasingly technology-laden workplace. If our schools can't do it alone, the logic goes, then we have to either help - or do it for them.

Walk into San Diego's High Tech High, and you just might think you've stepped into the offices of an ad agency or software company. A sinuous, blond-wood reception desk curves beneath an industrial-style ceiling with blue-painted roof trusses and exposed ductwork. Carpeting muffles the footsteps of students, who gather in groups in the expansive lobby to finish math assignments or station themselves for online research in a bullpen of 100 computer desks. An overhead conduit is open, revealing computer cables that link the building's network; students are learning to repair it. Down one hall is a CAD animation classroom, and, next door, a biotech science lab with equipment that many hospital pathology labs would love to own.

So far, it has seemed to work. Partnerships with Cisco Systems, BIOCOM, and Hughes Network Systems, among others, allow the school to offer the riches of technology to a student body that, in ethnicity and economic status, mirrors the rest of San Diego's public schools. Apart from capital expenses, High Tech High's outlay per pupil is $18 less than the California average of $6,772. Discipline problems are few, students are engaged in learning, and the whole setup impressed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation so much that it pledged $6.4 million to replicate the concept in 10 schools across the country. The first High Tech High clone opened this fall in Philadelphia.