RICHMOND -- Richmond residents Steve and Susan Chamberlin, both 70, took a look around when they were ready to retire to decide what they really wanted to do with their money.

Although they had made education-related donations in the past, they saw a crying need in public education in low-income neighborhoods in their community. Children in need of a quality education were being shortchanged by cash-strapped schools and a shortage of new ideas for helping them learn.

Through their Pleasanton-based Chamberlin Family Foundation, they are intent on bringing more effective school leadership and better instruction to the West Contra Costa school district, which includes Richmond, with an emphasis on programs that they believe are getting results.

With that in mind, they have given $500,000 to support West Contra Costa's participation in Emerging Leaders, a national organization aimed at training teachers to be effective school leaders.

They have also donated $200,000 this year, with an ongoing pledge of $100,000 per year, to the Richmond campus of Leadership Public Schools, charter schools that have raised school test scores significantly for African-American and Hispanic students from low-income neighborhoods.

LPS Richmond students averaged more than 800 points, the benchmark for proficiency, on the state's Academic Performance Index, about 100 points higher than students in neighboring public schools, according to the school's website.

"I invest my money for different kinds of returns," Steve Chamberlin said. "We're not interested in wrestling with alligators; we want to drain the swamp."

Added Susan Chamberlin: "If we don't address these kids' needs, we're going to have a truly uneducated population."

The Chamberlins have targeted Emerging Leaders as an outstanding program. Participating teachers receive intense training after school and on weekends, said Nia Rashidchi, an assistant superintendent who leads the program for the West Contra Costa district.

"The program involves 20 of our teachers who want to be leaders in their schools to improve student achievement, or they want to go beyond their school site and be principals someday," Rashidchi said.

Some of the participants go on to the next stage, called Aspiring Leaders, where the specific focus is giving them experience as administrators.

Teachers in Aspiring Leaders serve an internship year as a vice principal or assistant principal under the leadership of top principals, Rashidchi said.

Steve Chamberlin, who had a decades-long career as a developer, said he really became interested in education after he began lecturing about real estate and entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

"I was excited by the atmosphere (at Haas), where the students were on top of the subject and challenged me by asking tough questions during every class," Chamberlin said.

Since they started the foundation in 2006, the Chamberlins have donated more than $2 million to schools, colleges and universities in Northern California.

The Chamberlins also have a wide-ranging interest in other areas of educational innovation.

Susan Chamberlin cited the Silicon Schools Fund, which is providing gifts of technology to promote so-called blended learning. With blended learning, teachers spend most of their class time working with students who are using computers and other technology as opposed to more traditional techniques, such as lecturing or leading discussions.

"When the Chamberlins first told me they were 'venture philanthropists,' I was unclear what they meant. Now I get it," said Haas Dean Richard Lyons. "They are masters at identifying areas in public education where new opportunities are opening up but we hadn't yet made investments to have access to them."