As a student at Harvard Law School (HLS), Earl Martin Phalen did much of his learning and career building in elementary school.
It was around the corner, at the Agassiz Elementary School (now the Baldwin School) that Phalen and other members of the Harvard Black Law School Students’ Association started a mentoring program.
“A lot of us felt like there was something missing as we went to law school, and that something was giving back to the community,” says Phalen. He and his fellow students drew on their own experiences and agreed that providing black mentors to young urban students would have a great impact on their futures.
Those two afternoons a week in elementary school sowed the seeds that became BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a community-based nonprofit organization started by Phalen and classmate Andrew L. Carter dedicated to increasing the educational opportunities and achievements of children living in low-income communities.
BELL is one of the many nonprofit organizations to which Harvard employees can direct their Community Gifts donation.
From its modest start with 20 students at the Agassiz School, BELL, which marked its 10th anniversary Wednesday (Nov. 20), now serves nearly 1,500 elementary school students in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., with after-school programs five days a week and six-week academic summer camps.
“It’s been an amazing run for the organization,” says Phalen, pointing with pride to the organization’s 1997 President’s Service Award; BELL was one of just 16 organizations selected to receive the honor from President Clinton.
Adding books to mentors
BELL’s roots as a mentoring program quickly took on an academic component when the original HLS mentors realized that nearly all of their students were reading at far below grade level. Now, BELL targets those students who are performing below grade level in elementary school, infusing their after-school hours with substantial academic support and caring mentoring.
“If you get children off to a strong academic start, they will continue to use that momentum for long-term success,” says Phalen.
He recalls Guy, a young “scholar” brimming with energy and personality – much of it misdirected. With his father in jail, Guy was primed to benefit from a positive mentoring relationship. Although Guy’s academic performance was poor, his mentor nurtured his intelligence, asking him to visualize a straight-A semester.
Guy produced those straight A’s, and while he continued to struggle throughout school, says Phalen, he’s now the first in his family to attend college.
“This program shows our children that people care about them and it gives them the academic support they might not get elsewhere,” says Phalen. “Some of our children are caught in this downward cycle. We put them on a success spiral.”
BELL, which serves nearly 1,000 children in the Boston area, continues to receive support from Harvard. Climenko Professor of Law Charles Ogletree Jr. has chaired the organization’s board of directors for 10 years, and Robert Peterkin, Francis Keppel Senior Lecturer on Educational Policy and Administration and director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Graduate School of Education, is a board member. Harvard undergraduates and Law School students work as tutors, and the organization’s Tobin School (Mission Hill) and Jackson Mann School (Allston) sites have received Harvard After School Initiative grants.
With its decade of service, strong academics, alignment with state learning standards, parental and community involvement, and commitment to thoughtful evaluation, BELL is poised to capture the charitable attention of Harvard employees, says Phalen.
“We have a program that has a demonstrable and positive impact on the lives of children,” he says. “And we have a huge, huge waiting list of children who want to get into our program.”
To learn more about BELL, visit http://www.bellboston.org. Community Gifts Through Harvard pledge cards, which have been mailed to Harvard employees, can be returned to solicitors or directly to the Community Gifts office at 124 Mt. Auburn St., Room 420 South, Cambridge, MA 02138. For information, call (617) 495-1598. To designate BELL to receive a Community Gifts donation, use the green “charity of my choice” pledge card.