Susan Chamberlin, MBA 87, and her husband, Steve, spent years planning new structures and cityscapes. Now they’re redesigning the world of public education.By James Daly
It’s an hour after the end of the normal school day at the Summit Tamalpais school in Richmond, California, a time when most schools are quiet of students.
But here, on a hill at the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay, it’s different. Even after a school day that began more than eight hours earlier, there is much energy around the building. Students play in the gym, kick soccer balls outside, and take after-hours classes in rooms abuzz with activity. It’s clear that some don’t want to leave.
As a photographer snaps photos of Susan and Steve Chamberlin in an empty classroom, two gum-chewing 12-year-old girls watch from the doorway, excited at the attention afforded these strangers.
“How do you like going to school here?” Steve Chamberlin asks, beckoning them inside.
“I love it,” one, named Natalee, says.
The other, also named Natalie, nods. “I feel so lucky to be here,” she says, then explains how this school isn’t like any she’s ever attended. “We’re even allowed to chew gum,” she says. “It helps me concentrate.” The girls are surprised to learn that the couple built their school and talk excitedly for several minutes about schoolwork and teachers.
From the moment they start interacting with the students, Steve and Susan Chamberlin beam. “Those are the kind of moments that make it all worthwhile,” Steve says after the girls leave. “I really am proud of these students. Every one.”
Natalee (middle left) and Natalie (middle right) express their excitement with their new school with Steve and Susan Chamberlin. Photo: Karl Nielsen.
Married more than 50 years, Steve and Susan are partners in an ambitious effort to improve local schools. Though technically retired, they remain committed to doing what they’ve done throughout their careers: building. For more than four decades, as a highly successful real estate developer and architect respectively, their tools were steel, glass, and concrete. Now they employ different building materials but have similar goals. Where once they created places for people to live and work, today they’re focused on building innovative facilities and providing them to organizations running schools that expand minds and hearts. It’s an educational experience that’s inspiring (and even fun) for hundreds of middle- and high-school students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
“We believe all kids should have the same chance to attain their dreams,” Susan says.
Spearheading their educational philanthropy is the Chamberlin Family Foundation, which was created in 2006 with a simple yet powerful mission: invest in the people and ideas that will vastly improve K–12 public education, particularly where inequitable opportunities impede student potential.
For their efforts bettering the lives of others, Susan and Steve Chamberlin have been named Berkeley-Haas’ 2016 Business Leaders of the Year, the highest honor the school bestows. The annual award is presented to leaders not only for their career accomplishments but for going beyond themselves and positively impacting and influencing alumni and students.
For many of the Chamberlin’s associates (and recipients of their generosity), it’s a fitting choice. “Susan and Steve are investing in a vision that starts with the community and its people, and that’s what makes their efforts so powerful,” says Kelly Garcia, executive director of the Summit Public School’s K2 campus in El Cerrito, which opened in 2014. “This is not just about using their skills as builders and designers to create non-traditional learning spaces. It’s about investing in the kids who fill those classrooms and the community that supports the kids.”
“We believe all kids should have the same chance to attain their dreams.”
—Susan Chamberlin, MBA 87
The Summit K2 public school was the first school campus for the Chamberlins, one that relied on Steve’s long experience as a real estate developer. Once a K–8 private school called Windrush, the Chamberlins bought the four-acre campus in El Cerrito after Windrush was unable to make payments on $13 million in bonds. Despite a legacy of 35 years serving middle-class families, Windrush was another on the long list of private schools to fall victim to the economic crisis. With tuition at $20,000 a year, many parents had pulled their kids out. The Chamberlins toured the school “and made the decision to buy it in a heartbeat,” Susan says.
They then began to work with the Summit Schools organization, a network of charter schools serving the Bay Area’s diverse communities. Summit operates ten schools that have more than 3,000 students, and its chief goal is to prepare kids for success in a four-year college. Many of the students attending have never had a family member graduate from college. Summit K2 now has 300 seventh- through ninth-grade students and aims to have up to 630 middle- and high-school students over the next four years.
Summit Tamalpais school in Richmond, Calif., is bright, modern, and spacious. Wide roll-up doors open to the outside in a number of classrooms, allowing students access to fresh air and green grass. Photo: Karl Nielsen.
Susan and Steve’s most ambitious effort to date is in Richmond, Calif., where the couple has lived for more than 20 years and is the focus of their education efforts. Across from a sprawling suburban shopping mall, they’ve built a pair of schools that represent a local nirvana for middle and high schoolers. The Hilltop campus complex—which consists of the Aspire Public School’s Richmond Technology Academy, the Aspire’s Cal Prep High School, and a new Summit Tamalpais school—sits on an eight-acre site that was once occupied by a bank and a grocery story. Aspire opened in August 2015 and serves 320 K–5 and 360 high-school students. Summit Tamalpais, launched this past August, has 120 seventh graders, but it will serve grades seven through 12 in another five years. Eventually, the two classroom buildings could hold up to 1,400 students combined.
At their schools, like in their careers, the Chamberlins are eager to break down walls. Both the Aspire and Summit buildings are bright, modern, and spacious. Wide roll-up doors open to the outside in a number of classrooms, allowing students access to fresh air and green grass. Both buildings surround a small playing field covered with artificial turf and dotted with small saplings. It’s an aesthetic that has won over many converts in the area, where schools can be dark and decrepit. This year, the Aspire school received 2,400 applications for the 160 available seats in its two schools at Hilltop. The Summit school, in its first year, received two applications for every opening.
Perhaps best of all, the school facilities built by the Chamberlins are all financially stable and don’t require ongoing philanthropy. “We wanted to create something that was sustainable; something that would outlive the year-to-year funding,” says Steve. The Chamberlins paid for all of the schools’ land and facilities. The daily operation of the schools is funded the same as all public schools in California, by the state; they are free public schools open to all children.
Education has long been a cause the Chamberlins have championed, especially at Berkeley-Haas. For many years they taught a course on land use and development here, and they have also supported the school financially. Passionate about the power of teaching, they helped launch the Haas Center for Teaching Excellence, which helped professional and research faculty hone their teaching skills and introduce new classroom technologies. A donation to the Center for Social Sector Leadership (CSSL) piloted the Social Impact Collective, an initiative geared to philanthropists and impact investors who want to be more strategic with their giving. CSSL has also benefitted from Susan’s leadership and support as a member of their advisory board for many years.
“The Chamberlins have contributed so much to the whole package of how we think about real estate education at Haas,” says Nancy Wallace, co-chair of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics. They were particularly interested in having students make good career choices, Wallace adds. Indeed, the Chamberlins helped create the Accelerating Careers in Real Estate (ACRE) program. Offered through the school’s Career Management Group, ACRE’s goal is to help student’s figure out their ideal career path in the highly segmented and diverse field of real estate. “They’re both committed to the success of their profession,” adds Wallace, “both now and in the future.”
While a Berkeley-Haas Adjunct Professor, Steve helped start the NAOIP Real Estate Challenge, a competition between UC Berkeley and Stanford, which is designed to give graduate students hands-on experience in creating complex real estate projects. Every year, teams are assigned a sample site and given just 60 days to come up with a development proposal, which is judged by a panel of jurors. For his work, Steve received the Haas Contributions by Adjuncts and Lecturers (CAL) Award for teaching excellence.
Building schools was not Susan and Steve’s first choice for retirement. High-school sweethearts in Hawaii, they both loved the water and began competing in sailing races from San Francisco to Hawaii. They also undertook a two-year journey through the South Pacific on their 46-foot custom sailboat, named the Surprise after the Royal Navy frigate in several of Patrick O’Brian’s sea-based adventure novels. Now they sail a more modest 28-foot craft called the Hana Hou (Hawaiian for “encore”).
While charting nautical courses provided fun and adventure, the Chamberlins, now 74, grew restless. “Those days were great, but we wanted to use our wealth to promote a social return,” Susan says.
Adds Steve, with a twinkle: “You could say that I flunked retirement.”
Taking on formidable missions, like improving a flawed public education system, doesn’t daunt Susan or Steve in the slightest. Throughout their careers, they’ve both excelled where others have struggled.
Susan earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell—one of just two women from the Class of 1965 to complete its demanding architectural program. After 20 years practicing architecture, she earned her Berkeley MBA. She then managed people and projects for six years at the Oakland Redevelopment Agency. As her last project, she managed the design team working on a complex state office building project in Oakland. It was, she says proudly, “completed on time and on budget.” Today, she is a trustee of the Oakland Museum of California and a trustee and vice chairman of the UC Berkeley Foundation
In addition to founding Chamberlin Associates, a successful real estate development firm in California, Steve co-founded Rouse/Chamberlin Homes in Philadelphia in 1978. “Much of my homebuilding experience there was in completing projects where other builders have failed,” he says. “In nearly 40 years, we’ve completed every project we started. No stiffed vendors, no burnt lenders, and we never filed for any form of bankruptcy.”
That legacy of getting the job done with the tools at hand guides them. Through the Chamberlin Family Foundation and their organization Education Matters (ed-matters.org), they’re not only investing in people and ideas that will create transformational and sustainable change in K–12 public education but focusing on the needs of students who are too often left behind. Demography, they say, need not define destiny.
Both Steve and Susan are themselves graduates of public schools and believe a good education—one that focuses on the individual and includes critical thinking—is essential to providing opportunities.
When the Chamberlins walk the halls of their campuses, they are met with smiles and enthusiasm by the students as well as the teachers and administrators. Their goal is not to meddle (they consider themselves social entrepreneurs, not educators) but to provide a place of learning, encouragement, and enjoyment that bears both immediate and long-term dividends.
“Every kid and every family, regardless of their economic means or where they live, deserve access to a great school and education that prepares them not only for a career but as a way to support their family and community,” says Steve. “It’s not only essential to them, it’s crucial to the future of the nation.”