Regardless of the weather, the Ballou High marching band practices -- in the cold, in the heat and in the rain. When the wind blows, sheet music flies and musicians can be seen chasing the papers around their practice field.

Through it all, band director Darrell Watson assures his students that their hard work and dedication will eventually pay off. And he's rarely steered them wrong.

Most recently, on Sept. 22, the band was selected as one of eight to compete in the Home Depot Battle of the High School Marching Bands in Carson, Calif., next month. A field of 110 high school bands from throughout the country had vied for a spot by sending in a videotape of their best performances.

The honor, however, requires the Southeast Washington school to pay its own travel and lodging expenses. Between now and Nov. 20, the band needs to raise $70,000.

In a school system in which nearly $1 billion is spent each year to educate a mere 64,000, you'd think there would be some kind of "sunshine fund" that helps students like these continue to blossom. A business community powerful and profitable enough to pony up $450 million for construction of a baseball stadium could easily write off the entire amount as a genuinely good business expense.

But for Ballou, where 40 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches, that $70,000 might as well be in a pot at the end of some rainbow. And the band already knows the pain of having that rainbow fade away.

In 2001, after a fabulous festival march through Chinatown, the band was invited to perform in China. The cost was $100,000. They never made it.

Of course, band members never say never.

"We've held car washes, and we've been selling tickets to events where the band will perform," said Anna Myers, 17, a piccolo player and president of the band. Vice President Nikko Raynolph-Hardman, a 16-year-old trumpet player, added, "We've got a caterer who will cook, and we will sell dinners. We will try anything."

So far, the band has raised less than $1,000.

In the aftermath of the shooting deaths of two Ballou students at and around Ballou last school year, morale dropped sharply and some parents pulled their children out of the school. A mercury spill by a student at the start of the school year caused Ballou to be evacuated for weeks.

"When we'd go out to perform, people would say, 'Oh, that's the mercury school,' " said Anna, the band president. But the band played on, helping to keep school spirit alive.

Barring inclement weather, the Ballou band will hold another car wash Saturday in the school stadium parking lot, at Fourth and Trenton streets SE. "All Mercurys and silver cars pay a dollar extra," Anna said.

After a luncheon at The Washington Post yesterday, I asked D.C. school Superintendent Clifford B. Janey what could be done to help the Ballou band get to California. He cited a $5 million "administrative premium" fund to help out with after-school programs. Marching bands, unfortunately, were ineligible to receive any money, although he was working to change that, he said.

Asked how D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams might help out, Janey replied, "The mayor should use the power of the bully pulpit by focusing on the neediest parts of the school district." He could start by bringing up the matter with his pals in the business community, say, during discussion about how much to charge for box seats.

"If [the business community] could create a program that rewards schools for improved school climate -- a difference that a student or a group makes on the school, which can be measured -- that would send a powerful message," Janey said. "It would say that although we know all schools are not created equal, we have a business community that cares enough to help correct that imbalance."

As for his role, Janey vowed to address the "neglect" and "despair" that he has found throughout the school system since taking over two weeks ago. "It took a lot of hard work to create this kind of neglect," he said. "It didn't happen with the stroke of a pen."

On the positive side, all it takes is the stroke of a pen to replace neglect at Ballou with richly deserved recognition and support.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com