The Duke Ellington School of the Arts: Washington D.C., public school saves lives and creates stars
By Richette L. Haywood
Ebony, Jan, 1996

FROM the outside it looks like any other public school. But open the door to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts A L in Washington, D.C., and one thing becomes instantly clear: this is no typical high school. This is a place where young dreamers learn to make their dreams come true. A place that turns unknowns into unforgettables. A place that transforms young people into stars. Big stars. Most importantly, it is a place that saves lives. As founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz puts it, it is a place where students' "dreams are so big and real that they've propelled these kids out of difficult, poor, often illiterate families and into some of the finest artistic arenas in America."

Since the mid '70s, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts has been the launching pad for many talented but at-risk young people who came to believe in their goals, their gifts, and their genius within those stone walls. They are the fortunate few who, thanks to the school's unique curriculum, have their academic lives constructed around their dreams. With more than half the student population coming from the poorest and most violent sections of the nation's capital, it is an edge they are counting on.

On any given day, in any given classroom, one thing is obvious. The 525 students and 125 faculty members at Ellington are a community, sharing the same hopes, the same live of art, the same drive for excellence. "We refer to ourselves as the Ellington family," says Principal Carolyn Wilson. The school's mission, she says, is a simple one. "Duke Ellington offers an opportunity for city youth to prepare themselves for college in an atmosphere of warmth and caring and does it in an atmosphere which provides the arts." The school, she adds, has received the U.S. Department of Education's most prestigious award--the Blue Ribbon.

But the true beauty of the school, says Wilson, is its primary criteria for entrance: "talent." Artistic talent, however, does not always equal demonstrated academic ability. "We receive students with a wide range of academic abilities," concedes Wilson. "If the student comes to us exceptionally talented in the arts, but has academic deficiencies, we have what we call the Academic Bridge Program in the summer to give them support in reading, math and writing. We also have a Shepherding program for all incoming students to give them additional support to help them become adjusted to a rigorous arts and academic program and to give them moral support."

After more than two decades of educating mostly Black, mostly poor, very talented youth, the faculty and staff at Duke Ellington know what needs to be done to get their students prepared for tomorrow. Mainly because they are prepared today. That's exactly why the drop-out rate is virtually and 92 percent of the students at Ellington go on to college. However, getting here, to this place, has not been a cakewalk for anyone committed to the school's vision since its inception. Founded in 1974 by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, with director and choreographer Mike Malone, the school was built on a hope and prayer, a commitment from D.C. Public Schools to the dreon, and a modest $6 million in donations. Her goal, says Cafritz, has remained unchanged since the school's doors first opened. "I wanted the school to be a place where kids without other opportunities, who were very talented, could come and learn and develop into intelligent artists." Now, with 20 years of success stories to tell, Cafritz is understandably pleased to proclaim "Ellington is an extraordinary ground." It is a success story, she insists, that needs to be supported by the Black community, Black corporations, Black foundations, Black individuals because it really is a national model that we should try to replicate in other communities."

Duke Ellington School of the Arts is Cafritz's vision. She has been able to do the impossible, get water from a rock, pull a rabbit out of her hat every time the school and its students have needed her to. There is never a time when the call for yet another miracle can't be heard ringing through the school's hallways just as loudly as the sweet sounds of classical and jazz music.

Because of the unique nature of the school, money is always an issue. As a part of the D.C. Public School System, Ellington receives the same funding per student as any other city high school, even though Ellington has both a full academic college preparatory curriculum and an arts curriculum to support. As such, the Ellington Fund, is the school's non-profit fund-raising arm, has to raise at least $1 million a year to realize the school's commitments to its seven arts disciplines: dance, literary and media arts, museum studies, music, theater, technical theater, and visual arts.

Fortunately, private and corporate donations have permitted the school to partially complete an $8 million renovation, add a Museum Studies major to its curriculum, and provide thousands of dollars in college scholarships.

And although it has been a struggle, faculty, students and contributors have stayed the course. That's why, says Cafritz, it's possible to find "our graduates at Carnegie Mellon, in the American Ballet Theater, starring in New York's Metropolitan Opera, doing stand-up comedy on the Tonight Show, or in the film Robin Hood. Men in Tights. Others have performed with the Dance Theater of Harlem and studios of the Parsons School of Design."

Such well-known artists as opera singer Denyce Graves, contemporary singer Tony Terry and comedian Dave Chappell attended Ellington. Also arnong the renowned celebrities who are a part of the school's history are musicians Wynton Marsalis, Billy Taylor and Lionel Hampton--who have conducted master classes at the school--and actress-director-choreographer Debbie Allen, who was the school's first dance teacher and remains a steadfast supporter.

Finding heroes among the role models at The Duke Ellington School of The Arts is effortless. They are all over. Probably because they have taken to heart the school's creed: "commitment, responsibility, excellence, empowerment and dignity."

© 1996 Johnson Publishing Co