Debbie Berger and Bill Reeves give their time and efforts to improve public schools

FURLOUGH FRIDAYS. Budget shortfalls. Voter apathy. Student performance. With all that is facing public education in Hawaii, it’s tempting to become overwhelmed and apathetic.

Enter Debbie Berger and Bill Reeves. For the past five years, Berger and Reeves have been connecting the dots, meeting with parents, teachers and administrators to find effective small-scale solutions to some of public education’s most pressing problems.

“Public education plays a vital role in leveling the playing field between children separated not by intelligence or commitment but simply by economic standards,” Reeves says.

Berger and Reeves, who met in 1991 and married in 1994, are co-founders of The Learning Coalition (TLC), a non-partisan, nonprofit organization created in 2008.

“We are hoping to help build a movement for education that will assist in the transformation of our schools into institutions that are responsive to the needs of our students and to the environment into which they will graduate,” Berger says. “Our children are a precious resource which should be nurtured. The success of Hawaii’s future will depend upon the next generation of builders and bankers, doctors and designers, technicians and teachers.”

But Berger and Reeves’ philanthropy didn’t begin with TLC. In 2005, while they were still living in London, they started Unbound Philanthropy, a charitable organization that emphasized helping immigrant and refugee populations, including the children of immigrants and refugees.

Through Unbound Philanthropy and TLC, Berger and Reeves helped the Department of Education hire a technical consultant to assist with the application for the Race to the Top program, part of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; provided seed money for the Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program at Punahou; and collaborated with the grassroots parent-advocacy group Hawaii Education Matters, among other initiatives.

“The Race to the Top is a radically different way of allocating money,” says Ronn Nozoe, acting deputy superintendent of the Department of Education. “Basically, states compete for a $4.3 billion pot of money. To qualify, schools had to put in place reforms, basically connect teachers/principals to student performance.”

Adds Berger, “We are very supportive and proud of the DOE’s work in Hawaii’s RTTT application. The process has been well-thought-out and robust despite the lack of resources. Putting together Hawaii’s RTTT application was, and is, an enormous undertaking, and in this regard, we were able to help by providing technical assistance in the form of consultants used to help articulate and hone Hawaii’s vision; and by reaching out into the community to explain what this transformation would mean. Most importantly, win or lose, the principles and vision behind the Race will fuel a bold and innovative DOE strategic plan for the next five years. This is so high-impact – it’s very exciting to be able to help!”

Round 1 of Race to the Top concluded with funding going to Delaware and Tennessee. Hawaii’s application for Round 2 is due on June 1.

“Not only do Bill and Debbie do their homework, they take the time to ask the critical questions and listen to what people in-the-know have to say,” says Nozoe. “They find ways to assess what we need help with.”

Others in the education community also share Nozoe’s appreciation.

“They really get why this stuff is important,” says Carl Ackerman, Punahou teacher and director of the PUEO Program. “Because they were able to provide some of the initial funding, I could spend less time developing funding sources and more time focusing on the program.”

PUEO, which is an acronym for Partnerships in Unlimited Education Opportunities, is a seven-year program started in 2005 as part of the national initiative Private Schools with a Public Purpose. Essentially, Punahou partners with approximately 50 public schools statewide to identify promising students to participate in a summer program. PUEO fosters a love for learning in its younger students, and in many cases grants college credit to its high school participants.

Ann Davis, founder of the grassroots parent group Hawaii Education Matters, echoes Nozoe’s and Ackerman’s sentiments.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for Bill and Debbie,” she says. “When we started and decided to be an integral part of the furlough resolution, we really had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know the players, we didn’t know the process, we didn’t know the politics. Debbie and Bill truly guided us through the process.”

HEM began with a group of concerned parents who met in the cafeteria of Kahala Elementary School in September 2009, after the state first announced its plans for Furlough Fridays. It, with the help of TLC and Kanu Hawaii, organized a rally at the state capitol on Oct. 23, 2009, to protest the state’s Furlough Friday schedule.

“Originally, we started to advocate for an immediate solution to the lost instructional days that resulted from the furlough … but after our rally, it became quite clear that the need in public education was far greater than just solving furloughs,” she adds. “Public education is the foundation by which we can more robustly address overall socioeconomic, health, environmental and financial issues plaguing our communities. Whether you have a child in the public education system or not, it affects each one of us.”

Much remains to be done to improve public education, but Berger and Reeves remain optimistic and hope others can contribute their time to helping out the cause.

“There is a feeling of excitement, transformation among those involved in public education,” Berger says. “The landscape is about to shift and we have a chance to affect the kind of change we need. We have this great opportunity.”

Online Resources: The Learning Coalition thelearningcoalition.org

Punahou Schools PUEO Program punahou.edu/page.cfm?p=1529

Hawaii Education Matters hawaiieducationmatters.org

Hawaii State Department of Education doe.k12.hawaii.edu