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Duke Ellington families fight against DCPS control

DCPS has proposed taking full control of Duke Ellington. Right now, they're governed by public and private partnerships.

WASHINGTON — DCPS has proposed assuming full control of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Families do not want that to happen.

A group of students and parents are planning to gather outside DCPS Central Office Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. to protest.

Right now, Duke Ellington is controlled by a group of public and private partnerships, including DCPS, the Kennedy Center, and George Washington University.

It's structured as a dual curriculum, where half the day is academics and half is arts. Students have the opportunity to take AP courses, and it’s a long day – students are there from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Their music, dance, theatre and other art teachers are typically working professionals, which students said gives them a level up.

"They want to take away our DSAP principal, and that's important, because the current one we have, she's an arts advocate; she has been involved in art; she was an artist, and is an artist. And who better to govern in an art school than to have an artist as principal," senior Sanaa Stringfield said.

Some of the other changes she and parents fear will come if DCPS takes full control, in their words, are:

  • Insisting that the arts professionals who teach students can no longer be employed there because they are not certified teachers, but working arts professionals. This would mean that a dance class, currently taught by working professional dancers, could be taught by a gym teacher. That a journalism course taught by a working journalist would instead be taught by an English teacher.
  • Refusing to pay all of Duke Ellington’s teachers like the rest of DCPS teachers, continuing a pay disparity that began in 2011 and has resulted in our teachers receiving 75%, or less, of what other DCPS teachers make. DCPS has also not committed to fully funding the arts program, which would severely worsen the issue.
  • Not recognizing or valuing the school's unique arts curriculum, which provides all students at least 15 hours a week, and more than 500 hours each school year, of pre-professional arts study with working arts professionals. Students commit to a long school day, from 8:30 to 5 p.m. in order to complete arts courses that are in addition to their traditional coursework.
  • Refusing to recognize Ellington’s unique and necessary focus on the Black experience in the arts.

Sanaa said Duke Ellington as-is sets up students to potentially be the next Dave Chappelle or Ari Lennox – two famous alums – unlike any other school could.

“It's just really been a place where I can like, just cultivate my own artistry, you know, grow as an artist and just as a student in general," she said. "Even our teachers were saying, like, who you know, work at other DCPS schools, we probably have the best ethics in the country. So I think it's prepared me for college in general."

Her mom agrees -- and emphasizes the dual curriculum as a pillar.

"To me, it just strengthens the kids as far as work ethic, integrity, prioritizing, deciding what I need to get done now, what I can possibly leave until tomorrow. And it's a nice to have, but I don't necessarily have to do it," Sanaa's mom, Joyce Stringfield said. "They're learning all of these skills in high school. So when they get to college, it will not be that much of a transition."

A spokesperson for Duke Ellington said the idea of DCPS taking over has been brought up in numerous contract negotiations, but this time, it feels more imminent.

They believe part of the reason for that is the 2018 death of co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

They said the school had entered into negotiations in the hopes of achieving pay parity for their teachers, who are paid less since many are not certified teachers but working professionals. Then, in February, they said the Chancellor released a statement saying DCPS would be assuming control -- which was not the school's objective.

They said the initial partnership agreements had been devised because DCPS admitted that it did not have the capabilities or capacity to fully operate a pre-professional school, so they're confused why they would want to take it over now.

"Duke has performed to the fullest and with excellence. Without Duke, there wouldn't be no Dave Chappelle," Sanaa's aunt, Doreen Blue said. "What is that the Mayor and the Chancellor, since the Chancellor is at the pleasure of the Mayor is not seeing why this school is unique and is a model to not only other District of Columbia public schools, but just the world itself?"

To Blue's point, Duke Ellington's graduation rate is listed as 99% on DC School Report Card, compared to D.C.'s average of 69%.

D.C. Public Schools sent WUSA 9 the following statement:

DCPS is committed to maintaining the integrity and high-quality of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts phenomenal arts programming. The gifts within the student body and teacher workforce are a source of pride for Washington DC, and we want to preserve the dual-curriculum nature of the school for generations of young talent to come. 

 We value the arts professionals on staff and their unique expertise, and our proposal supports pathways both to licensure and compensation parity when licensure is not the best option. 

 We are continuing to meet in good faith with the Board of Directors with a shared goal of a strong future for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts that includes improved supports for student safety, operations, and accountability. 

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