Art & Design

Why did education leaders trash a school full of music, dance and art?

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Few American public high schools are anything like the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. It has been educating future artists and entertainers for 47 years. It also ranks in the top 7 percent of U.S. schools in challenging its students academically. Few campuses nationally have students as enthusiastic about their school.

Yet Ellington officials say the people who run D.C. public schools have failed to honor promises they made in 2017 to put the school on sound financial footing. The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has also not apologized for the harm it did to the school’s reputation three years ago by falsely accusing the families of 143 students of violating tuition rules.

Ellington officials say that may have had something to do with the failure to create a new funding formula for the school. Ellington needs help raising inadequate salary levels and relieving the pressure of its big fundraising needs.

“Recently, a prospective supporter said she would not make a financial contribution due to the ‘attendance scandal’ at our school,” said Deron Snyder, Ellington’s director of communications. “With a $3 million annual deficit, Ellington cannot afford to lose any donors while it fights for equitable funding.”

According to Ellington officials, District funding for the school in the 2019-2020 school year was $8 million, well short of the $11.638 million in the salaries and benefits its staff would have received if they worked at regular D.C. high schools. In 2017, the District committed in writing to phase in additional funding over a four-year period, but that didn’t happen.

D.C. Public Schools officials have not responded to my request for a reply to that complaint.

Ari Q. Fitzgerald, president of the Ellington Fund Board of Directors, said “there is a mind-set in many bureaucratic institutions that allows problems to fester longer than they should, even when the leaders of those institutions know what needs to be done.”

The school day at Ellington is 50 percent longer than regular schools because of the time added for instruction in dance, instrumental or vocal music, theater, technical design and production, visual arts, museum studies, literary media and communications. It had 569 students in 2019. Its ethnic breakdown is 68 percent Black, 13 percent White, 11 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 6 percent mixed. Thirty percent are from low-income families.

At Ellington, school officials said, 99 percent of students graduate, compared with 65 percent for rest of the District. It ranks in the top 7 percent of U.S. schools on my annual Challenge Index list based on participation in college-level courses and tests. Its percentage of seniors who have passed an Advanced Placement exam is about 33 percent higher than the national average. Its graduates include comedian Dave Chappelle, opera singer Denyce Graves and Grammy-winning bass player Ben Williams.

The enrollment scandal stemmed from the fact that about 8 percent of Ellington students live outside the District and pay tuition of $12,000 a year. In 2018, that was 46 students paying tuition, six times as many as the rest of the D.C. school system. In May of that year, 164 Ellington students — nearly 30 percent of the enrollment — were formally accused of living outside the city and failing to pay tuition. An additional 56 were warned they were suspects. Eighty-seven percent of those accused were eventually found to be innocent.

[Many families at acclaimed D.C. arts school cleared of enrollment fraud, school leaders and parents say]

An OSSE (pronounced AH-see) spokesperson told me recently that the action was necessary, because the agency was “responsible for enforcing residency requirements and investigating students’ residency status,” as well as ensuring that “D.C. residents are not paying for residents of other states to attend public schools in D.C.” He said “otherwise, OSSE’s residency verification processes are unrelated to school funding policies.” He did not say why there were so many false accusations.

The allegation that she had faked her D.C. residency astonished Lisa Burkett, whose son was a talented singer in the school’s famous Show Choir. She had moved into the District from Alexandria in 2016, because he was eager to go to the school. She didn’t know whether the accusation against her would affect her security clearance and her decades-long federal career. OSSE told her that the school had given her old address in Alexandria as her residence. She considered that highly unlikely, because the school sent all report cards and announcements to her D.C. address.

Ellington officials said OSSE had not checked the school’s mailing list before accusing parents of fraud. D.C. parent David Greene was told his documentation appeared to be false, because his address was a home owned by someone else. Greene pointed out that he was renting the property. He had a valid D.C. driver’s license and had been paying D.C. taxes since 2015.

D.C. Council members, including one who had suggested moving non-Ellington students into its building, denounced the “stunning depth of residency fraud” at the school and said “something like that doesn’t happen by accident.”

[How to defame dozens of school parents and never say you’re sorry]

A report by OSSE in reaction to the uproar blamed a failure by parents and the school to understand “the legal requirements of residency” and poor school record-keeping procedures. There was no apology to innocent parents. OSSE did not accept my suggestion that it never again make announcements calling hard-working families miscreants without first talking to them.

The school said it immediately took action to have those families not obeying the rules leave or pay back tuition.

Ellington officials said the promise of more financial support from the public school system was delayed not only by the dispute over enrollment practices but also by the District’s change of chancellors.

D.C. schools have gotten better in recent years, in part because District leaders have paid more attention to what parents want, including a greater choice of schools. Ellington has an extraordinary record for attracting families, or their tuition dollars, to the District. Isn’t that worth making sure the school can pay its inspiring staff at least what other D.C. teachers make?

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a large lawn in front of a building: The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington has been educating future artists and entertainers for more than four decades.


© Cheryl Diaz Meyer for The Washington Post
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington has been educating future artists and entertainers for more than four decades.

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