"We called all our children scholars," Phalen said. "These are children that were underperforming, sometimes a year or two below grade level with behavioral problems, but we called them scholars. It's just kind of setting that expectation that, 'You are going to do well, and I know you have it in you. We're going to hold you to a higher standard.'"
The program assigned homework every night, with classroom education continuing through the summer months. BELL grew to serve 17,000 children across four states, and President Bill Clinton honored Phalen for his work with a Presidential Service Award in 1997.
Six months ago, Phalen started a new chapter in his career as he became CEO of "Reach Out and Read," an organization started by two pediatricians in Boston in 1989. The program enlists 25,000 volunteer doctors at 4,500 sites across the country, providing the pediatricians with age-appropriate books to distribute to patients during checkups.
Phalen has observed firsthand the link between early-childhood learning and academic performance in the teenage years.
"Eighty-eight percent of children who show up below grade level, if they're not reading proficiently by the end of first grade, they never catch up. Never," he said.
The real genius of "Reach Out and Read" is that reading takes on the power of a doctor's prescription.
"When your doctor says, 'This is good for your child's health,' 99 percent of us will do something," said Phalen, and he has the numbers to back up the claim.
"Reach Out and Read" studies have shown that parents who participate in the program are four times more likely to read to their kids, and non-English-speaking parents are 10 times more likely to read to children.
That's true for Marie Betancourt, a 28-year-old mother in New York whose five-year-old son Sean has been receiving books from "Reach Out and Read" since he was nearly a year old.
"It's an amazing program," she said. "My son doesn't get motivation from watching TV or playing video games. He gets motivation from me telling him, 'Tonight we can read five books if you do homework quickly!'"
"It's a low-cost, smart model," Phalen said of the plan, which costs just $50 per child for the entire five years. "Parents are already going to their pediatrician, so there's no outreach. You don't have to convince them to go in."
Phalen says the program currently serves 32 percent of children in the U.S. who live in poverty, and the chair of the program's board of directors believes Earl Phalen can expand that reach even further with his hands-on leadership.
"Being the chair of 'Reach Out and Read' during the time that Earl Phalen was hired to be CEO was probably one of the best accomplishments of my professional career," said Judy Newman, who is also executive vice president of Scholastic, the children's book publisher.
"He's that perfect combination of very confident and always growing intellectually and socially," she said. "Really, we're lucky to have him, and he's going to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of children."
Phalen himself has no children, though he is uncle to over 30 nieces and nephews from his seven siblings. He said that his favorite book as a child was The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein's classic about a selfless tree's gifts to a boy throughout his life.
Phalen has given much of his own life for the benefit of kids, but he still has a lot left to contribute.
"I want to transform how children are educated," he said. "If you show a child that you care, you can absolutely change who they think they are and who they'll become."