In 2005, Toyota Motor Corp., entered a partnership with District of Columbia Public Schools [DCPS], awarding a 10-year, $1.5 million grant to refurbish Ballou Senior High School's Automotive Technology Center. The grant would further enable the center to equip students poised for vocational careers with paid internships as well as a guarantee that when they graduated, they could receive college scholarships and jobs that paid well above $10 an hour.
A gala luncheon for 21 students enrolled in the program was held recently at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street in Northwest. Attended by proud parents and community supporters, the event feted students who completed a seven-week summer study program, and who will be placed as interns during the school year at automobile dealerships throughout the D.C. area.
"We serve about 70 students each year from District high schools, providing them not only with automotive technology training, but life skills to help them envision productive lives outside of Southeast," said program coordinator Barbara Skinner, who serves as the District representative for Toyota. "As a result, we have at least five kids going to college this fall from an area that's been written off as a total failure."
Skinner complimented the honorees, who dressed for the Friday, August 10 occasion in attire befitting young ladies and gentlemen, for rising above expectations.
"This kind of celebration happened at a time when we're hearing that parents don't care," said Skinner. "But contrary to the popular notion that Southeast is the throw-away society filled with at-risk kids, the only problem we have is adults who have given up on them."
DARCARS Automotive Group, headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., is a Toyota partner for the program, which currently employs former Ballou students as full-time auto mechanics, technicians and customer service representatives. It's not unusual for the mechanics and technicians to earn between $45 and $60 an hour, Skinner said.
"It's a very lucrative field where more than 60,000 openings are available nationwide," she said. "We're helping to satisfy that need through this partnership."
Derrick Butler, 49, who graduated from Ballou, has been a program instructor at the Southeast high school for the past 26 years. He said he has seen many of his students become successful in automotive and sales associate positions at the two dozen DARCARS dealerships located in the Greater Washington metropolitan area.
It was DARCARS that initially stepped up when no one wanted to employ his students, Butler said.
"They came in with Toyota, pledging to hire at a minimum of $10 an hour, any kid who graduated from our automotive program," said Butler. "Then, after DARCARS became successful, it looked like other dealerships wanted to join in."
Butler said the program's primary aim has been to get jobs in the automotive field for youth who wouldn't otherwise be employable, largely because of where they live.
"When they walk into dealerships and say they live in zip code 20032, a lot of kids feel they don't have a chance," Butler said. "But Toyota has kind of knocked down that barrier."
Tammy Darvish, 48, vice president of DARCARS Automotive Group in Lanham, Md., added that in addition to keeping students off of the streets, the program keeps them busy all summer. It also provides youth who don't want to go to college, "a high level of vocational training" that makes them readily employable.
"Our kids are happy and engaged in their learning," Darvish said. "As a dealer, I'm always looking for a good technician . . . We have such a shortage of technicians across the country, that if I were given 100 to work right here in D.C., I would hire them all."