American Heart: Earl Phalen, Teaching Kids to Read

Abandoned at birth, he went on to Yale and now helps millions of kids.

March 23, 2010, 9:28 AM

March 23, 2010— -- Earl Phalen's life has been spent fighting tough statistics. Today, he's focused on the more than one third of American kids who start kindergarten without the basic skills they need to learn how to read. One cause of the problem is that less than half of parents read to their kids on a daily basis, and that is where Phalen sees an opportunity.

As CEO of 'Reach Out and Read,' he is on a crusade to put books in the hands of young children. Every year, his non-profit organization gives books to nearly four million kids, ages 5 and under, in the hope that reading to young children -- even if they're only six months old -- will prepare them for a more successful life.

Before working to help children, Phalen had to fight the odds himself. Abandoned at birth in 1967, he grew up to graduate from Yale University and Harvard Law. As he is quick to point out, 70 percent of African American boys in similar circumstances end up behind bars. The difference for Phalen came in the form of family -- a large, white, Irish-Catholic family.

"My parents decided to adopt an eighth child -- me. They decided to adopt a black child because of the social issues of the time," Phalen said.

His mother, Veronica Phalen, raised her large family with her husband George in a suburb outside of Boston, and she herself was not that far removed from the sting of discrimination. Her parents had emigrated from Ireland, only to find "Irish Need Not Apply" posted in many windows. She saw the parallels between that time and the injustice of the 1960s for black Americans.

Adopting a black child may have had political importance for the family, but Earl was raised the same as his seven siblings, with strong religious values and an equally strong work ethic.

Phalen played three sports in school because his parents required the kids to either be involved in extracurricular activities or hold down jobs.

"There was always the expectation that we would be the best," Phalen recalled. "My dad's famous statement was, 'Well, that's good, but there's room for improvement.'"

Those demanding standards -- and his performance on the high-school basketball court -- carried Phalen into Yale and then Harvard Law, where he was a classmate and friend of Barack Obama.

American Heart: Serving Kids While at Harvard Law

It was during his law school years that he focused on helping children as his mission in life. After two summers spent working with kids at orphanages and community centers, Phalen was nearly ready to quit law school, inspired by the chance to make a real impact.

"The notion that, literally, if you show up four weeks in a row and you remember a child's name and what they've said to you, you can absolutely change the life course of a child," Phalen said.

Phalen stayed at Harvard but found another way to make a difference. With a classmate, he founded BELL, "Building Educated Leaders for Life," a non-profit tutoring and mentoring program. The program started with fewer than two dozen kids, and Phalen promised to hold them to high standards -- the same way his parents had motivated him.

"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.

Doctor's Orders: Read to Your Kids

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."