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IN 1967, a teen mother in Massachusetts placed her baby in foster care. The baby’s odds for success were not good. At the time, an African American boy in foster care had a 70 percent chance of being in prison by age 21.
“That baby was me,” Earl Martin Phalen told a crowd of about 500 Thursday at the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Indianapolis.
Phalen was chosen by former Cummins CEO Tim Solso as recipient of the inaugural $50,000 Mitch Daniels Leadership Prize Grant. The funds will help Phalen’s Indianapolis charter school offer summer classes.
Phalen said that thanks to his adoptive parents, who already had seven children, and to the help he received from social workers, philanthropists and volunteers, he graduated not only from high school, but from Yale University and Harvard Law School, where he was a classmate of President Barack Obama.
Phalen became a nationally recognized education innovator for his Summer Advantage USA program, which helps children continue learning over the summer and exposes them to art, music and theater. Solso met Phalen when Cummins sponsored the program in Seymour.
Upon receiving the grant, Phalen told the crowd that only 8 percent of school students in the Indianapolis Public Schools will graduate from college, which puts them at a significant disadvantage in a global economy that will rely ever more on knowledge workers.
Many of these students struggle, as his natural mother did, with difficult family situations, Phalen said.
He expects that more than 50 percent of graduates of the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies will graduate from college.
The first of the academies opened this summer to 156 students in kindergarten through second grade.
Phalen told The Republic last week that the academies rely on strong teachers and principals and a good partnership with parents.
Students at Phalen go to school 220 days, plus 25 days over the summer, compared to 180 days per year in public schools. And, Phalen students stay eight hours, compared to 6.5 hours typically at public schools.
Phalen said Solso’s gift will help the Academies offer the additional 25 days of instruction over the summer.
“We don’t want that summer learning loss,” Phalen said.
Funded in part through
$1 million from The Mind Trust, the Academies are on an aggressive growth path to add nine schools during the next 12 years.
Any child in Indiana is eligible to attend Phalen, but students are chosen by lottery. The school, at 2323 N. Illinois St. in Indianapolis, still has spots available.
There is no tuition, but Phalen warned that while the school, like any charter school, receives state funds for instruction, it receives none for transportation, which means parents will have to find a way to get their children to and from school.
Phalen said the school also has high expectations in its staff and students. He said he expects that 90 percent of third-graders will pass the ISTEP test, compared to about 50 percent in nearby communities.
Phalen said Solso’s gift also exemplifies a wonderful recognition of the school’s staff and teachers.
“Our gratitude for this award,” he said.
Solso said Phalen exemplifies how one can improve people’s lives through better education.
“He and his programs are indeed a worthy recipient,” Solso said. “I’m just really impressed with him.”
Phalen hopes that his academies eventually will graduate 10,000 students annually.
The crowd recognized Phalen on Thursday with a standing ovation.
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