Higher Achievement Pro-Bono General Counsel
“What clicked with me immediately was the reality that kids in their middle school years are at a turning point in their lives,” says Gary Thompson, Higher Achievement Pro-Bono General Counsel. “If you can reach kids during these middle school years and really reinforce that they are scholars, that they are higher achievers, then you can really put them on a trajectory towards opportunity,” he describes.
In 2003, a colleague at his law firm, Charlene Howard, invited Gary to attend a Board meeting to learn more about Higher Achievement, the nonprofit that Charlene said had changed the lives of her daughters. After attending the meeting, Gary enthusiastically joined the Board and realized that Higher Achievement could benefit from pro-bono counsel.
“At that time, Higher Achievement was in a small cluttered room in the back of Gonzaga High School,” says Gary. “It was a wonderful small office community and it had just found new leadership in an Executive Director, Maureen Holla. This is when I joined the organization – with a whole lot of really committed parents, Board members, and staff. The organization sort of found its groove, and started to really move and make progress,” describes Gary.
Over the years, Gary has watched Higher Achievement grow from four Achievement Centers in DC to 15 Achievement Centers in four cities. Along the way, he has provided legal support in the creation of everything, ranging from waivers and release forms, leases and contacts, insurance, bylaws and corporate governance documents, risk management, and much more.
Though most of his volunteer experience with Higher Achievement has been behind the scenes, he makes a point of working with students as well. Every year, Gary goes to the Ward 4 Achievement Center in DC, and speaks about the Civil War battle that occurred just a few blocks away at Fort Stevens. Gary has also shared his experience representing several detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The experience of working with scholars was eye-opening and enriching. Gary says that, “They ask the most outstanding questions. The most basic questions that we ought to all be asking all the time about what is our Constitution, what does it protect. It’s just an example that if you bring kids to an environment where learning and intellect are encouraged, then you can really change somebody’s future.”
Gary has served as Higher Achievement’s pro-bono general counsel for 13 years and counting. Gary sees how much the program has grown, and simultaneously maintained its culture and commitment to community. As he expresses, “Alumni from this organization believe so strongly in what it’s doing that their support grows and grows each year. Parents never forget Higher Achievement and the opportunities Higher Achievement opened up for their children. Everybody that’s ever been involved with this organization remains a part of it. It’s like a family.”
As Higher Achievement continues to grow, Gary has been an unwavering force of support and enthusiasm. He brings 25 years of law experience and has even rallied the support of his law firm, Reed Smith, where he is the Office Managing Partner.
With 40 years of Higher Achievement history in the books, Gary believes that Higher Achievement’s, “best moment is right now.Right now, this organization is so well positioned with our results and with our commitment to continue doing amazing things. We now have some research that has been completed to back up what we’ve been about for these many years – and it shows that Higher Achievement works.”
FUTURE OF HIGHER ACHIEVEMENT
Looking ahead, Gary says: “In another 40 years, I see Higher Achievement having touched thousands of more lives for the better. I see Higher Achievement positioned to continue to be a positive force in thousands and thousands of more lives, in DC, Richmond, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and probably a number of other cities at that point. In 40 years from now, I see the world having been convinced of the Higher Achievement model that our research has proven, and will continue to prove, that if you want to make a difference in outcomes, focusing on the middle school years in the ways that we do has a true, lasting, and positive impact on education.
I see an increasing number of school systems getting that. Whether it’s Higher Achievement, the organization that they work with in the future, or something like it, I see this organization continuing to change how our country approaches middle school education generally. I know that’s true because the philanthropic community right now is very focused on real world results. They’re all finding out that our approach is the best one.
I hope that in 40 years our approach has been replicated in lots of ways, directly and indirectly throughout the country. Maybe we’ll be a bigger organization, or maybe we’ll be about the same size. Who knows? But there is so much good will in this organization that it’s just going to keep building on itself. As the leadership changes, and the Boards turn over, and new classes of kids come through, it’s just going to keep rolling. I guarantee you that there will be tens of thousands of kids on the alumni rolls of this organization, as there are already so many, feeling wonderful about this organization, and being part of a growing family of Higher Achievement alums that are committed to keeping the organization moving forward.”
If Higher Achievement was a person celebrating their 40th birthday, what kind of party would they throw? Gary’s answer: “One of those great parties where you realize that you’ve reached a milestone, and that there’s a lot to celebrate when you look back, and think about how far you’ve come. There’d be a long toast about all the things that you’ve accomplished up to this point in time. A lot of applause for a lot of fabulous results, but I think the party would be more about how young we still are. 40 is a great metaphor for that. I recently turned 50, but you know, similarly, when you turn 40, you also look forward to the next phase of your life. If you’re healthy, and well adjusted, as Higher Achievement is, that’s a great and positive thing. It’s a cause for optimism. There’d be an equal amount of celebration about all the great things that there are to come.”
Imagine a world where all students had access to a program like Higher Achievement: Gary concludes: “That would be a wonderful world. All children deserve an education, and there are so many places in the world where there isn’t opportunity in education and that’s a travesty. Every kid deserves nurturing and support because their minds are naturally curious. Their talents are present – with the right attention and positive reinforcement they just blossom. A world where that exists for every child would be a pretty amazing world.
When you really think about it, of all the things in the world you could change, education is at the root of everything. Once you change education for the better and put people in a position to do great things – they will do great things. That all flows from the core of an inspired education system. The world that you’re willing to dream about, that we’re willing to dream about at Higher Achievement, is not as far away as people think.”