Dennis Garris, managing partner of law firm Alston & Bird’s Washington office, didn’t think one phone call to Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington “would amount to this.”
He had decided it was time to get serious about helping the District’s public school system, so he researched schools he thought could use some extra cash and found himself speaking to the Ballou art teacher.
One year and tens of thousands of dollars later, the law firm is one of the high school’s most valuable corporate partners.
“They are the model for how the business sector can support,” said Ruth Jones, Ballou’s director of resource development. “It’s because of their ongoing investment of their time and money to figure out creative ways to help the students.”
The law firm threw the students a graduation party, prepared them to testify at a D.C. Council hearing on school budget cuts and hosted an internship program. In addition, a dozen of the Alston & Bird lawyers and staff members recently helped students plant trees, paint murals and clean the school’s vegetable garden during Ballou’s second annual Global Youth Service Day.
The event was one of seven that the school has organized in the last year as part of a larger campaign to redefine the Southeast Washington school’s reputation as a troubled school.
“Kids had internalized the fact that people identify their school as low performing or coming from a community that didn’t really produce a lot of success stories,” Jones said. “They know differently. We know differently. But the broader community didn’t know differently.”
Garris didn’t either but that’s what drew him to the school.
“When I looked at Ballou, it struck me that these people are probably having a tough time and they could use some support,” Garris said.
Shortly after the initial phone call, he joined the board of Friends of Ballou, the school’s nonprofit fundraising arm, which has since raised $1 million from partnerships and individual donors.
The school also partners with Toyota, which gives $150,000 each year; Capital One Bank; FedEx; Coca-Cola; City First Bank; Comcast; and George Washington University.
Friends of Ballou supports basic expenses, after-school tutoring, a Saturday academy, teacher training, scholarship programs and the new building fund.
“We’re not changing the world, we’re just looking to give these students a different experience,” said Garris. “One different life experience could change their whole life.”