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Lacrosse Debuts in Inner-City Washington School

Some of the girls on the lacrosse team at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., run a drill on the practice field, May 2011
Some of the girls on the lacrosse team at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., run a drill on the practice field, May 2011

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Jeff Swicord

The modern version of the Native American game lacrosse is a popular sport at many predominately white and affluent, suburban private schools in the United States. But it also has taken root at a predominantly African American, public high school in Washington, plagued by poverty, violence and low academic achievement. Girls are now playing lacrosse at Ballou High School, where educators and students there hope to gain from it.

It is the last practice of the season for the girl's lacrosse team at Ballou, and the competitive spirit is still running high. This is the first year Ballou has had a lacrosse team, and the first time these girls have played the sport. They lost every game, but their coach, Holly McGarvie, still considers the season a success.

“I think the goal each year is going to change," she said. "This year, I think, just starting and building a foundation that we can build from and create a tradition of women’s lacrosse here at Ballou.”

Building a foundation in one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Washington is not easy.  Eighty-five percent of Ballou students participate in the national free and reduced school lunch program, an indicator of poverty. In the past six years, more than 40 Ballou students have died violent deaths, many of them victims of drug violence.

Rahman Branch, the schools' principal, said, “One of the components is the drug culture kind of came into our cities. It really shattered a lot of poor communities and a lot of families. And our children come from those broken homes. Our children come from those splintered communities.”

Ballou’s low point came in 2006, when less than 60 percent of the senior class graduated. School administrators decided they needed to make changes. Foremost was creating an environment where students could leave their street-hardened survival skills at the school door.  

Another - expanding after school activities like girl's lacrosse.

“We decided to take some more approaches to add on to them being comfortable being a kid, to now making sure they are a kid who knows what they want, what it takes to get there, and then has the stamina to go through,” said Branch.

Branch said Holly McGarvie, a first-year teacher out of Princeton University, was a perfect match for Ballou. A star collegiate player and member of the U.S. National Lacrosse Team, she wanted to integrate lessons she learned from sports into teaching biology.

“In coaching, it is always great when you have an athlete, you know, understand a concept or make a great play with a teammate," said McGarvie. "And, I thought, you know, maybe in teaching you could do the same thing.”

McGarvie's lessons in the classroom and on the field are not lost on the girls. The first practices were frustrating, with angry exchanges among some players. McGarvie quickly let them know that would not be tolerated, and coached them on how to work through problems.

“On our way home from our first game, we are all talking about it and the girls are extremely excited," said McGarvie. "Despite the loss of, I think maybe 11 to 1, they were already in the mindset of what can we do better.”

Sophomore Tylashia Joyner said lacrosse has kept her away from negative things, and more focused on her future. “I will want to play in college because it will keep me in shape and it will help me stay focused and want to do something. Because if you want to play a sport, you have to have your grades up.”

If you are counting wins, it was a tough season for Ballou. But you wouldn’t know that from the look on the girls’ faces. Diane Jones said she will definitely play again next year.

"We had good times even though we lost all our games," said Jones. "We played good for it to be our first season of play.”

Ballou has already improved its graduation rate by 10 to 15 percent since 2006. Administrators expect that to continue to improve, and for lacrosse to be a part of it.


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