A Shining Star in Our Nation's Capital: The Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Co-authored by Liv Violette

While Washington DC's District schools struggle with a 53 percent graduation rate, 99 percent of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts seniors have graduated.

Yet 42 percent of Ellington's students come from "the most under-served wards in the District," Wards 7 and 8, says Rory Pullens, the school's dynamic and ebullient principal.

Ninety-five percent of the students have been accepted to institutions of higher learning and become successful.

Forty years ago the school's co-founders, Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Mike Malone saw dazzling children singing and dancing during an arts festival in the 1960s, and believed there was a way to help lift them up from poverty. The idea for the school came to them that day, and they transformed that idea into an exceptional success story.

Looking back now, Cafritz recalls the long road. "With no experience in fundraising, I asked the president [of George Washington University] if he could introduce me to possible generous donors. He introduced me to one, Hank Strong of the Hattie M. Strong Foundation. That one contact turned into others, and we had $90,000."

"The Duke Ellington School of the Arts was effectively the first charter school in the city," continues Cafritz, "But when we came along there was no charter school infrastructure. So we created our own by entering into a contract with the DC public school system (DCPS), which rendered us completely independent. Now the school is governed by a board with three executive representatives, each from their legal partners, George Washington University and the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and four members from the school."

The school has created many stars, who also give back to the school when possible: Dave Chappelle, Denyce Graves, and Hank Williams Thomas, among many. Famed opera singer Denyce Graves, who emerged from the school as a polished singer, says, "It gave me what I have today." She performed for the school's fundraising Legend Series, which brings in other big names such as Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, and Smokey Robinson. Rumor has it that there will be some heavy hitters fundraising for the school this year.

Even with all of its success and the scheduled rebuild, principal Pullens and co-founder Cafritz still worry about the school's future.

"Every year we make changes at Ellington in our attempt to keep getting better. We work hard to foster intelligent change. Not doing so would lead to stagnation. We also teach and sharpen our kids' ability to adjust to change. One reason we have such a stunning alumni roster is this ability," she said. "Our graduates are not one-hit wonders, but have in large part been able to sustain their careers. There are many more [graduates] ranging from lawyers to Broadway performers to jazz musicians. A majority of our students are the first in their family to go to college."

The school has an independent 501(c) 3 organization, The Duke Ellington Fund, which exists solely to support the school, and was recently awarded a $17.2 million endowment from The Eugene B. Casey Foundation to support its vocal and instrumental music programs, just two of its eight arts departments.

But the school needs to raise additional funding for The Shepherding Program, which offers social services to low-income children facing terrible struggles at home. "Without that program we would never have the graduation rate," said Pullens.

"We are taking young people who are not necessarily the most proficient academically. They may have had attendance problems or behavioral issues, whatever the case, because they were not in an environment that spoke to them, that really understood who they were, you know, internally as a person. But they come to Duke Ellington, and that life is transformed. This artistic environment brings out the best in them." -- Rory Pullens, Principal, The Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Pullens also highlights, "Where there are no resources, we are going to create the resources. Where there is not a way, we're going to make the way. [We are] an institution with that level of commitment, that level of dedication, from not only the staff here, but the individuals who sit on the board of Duke Ellington. It changes what public education can accomplish. And public education is in desperate desire of finding a template of what a school should offer to train up its young people." The Duke Ellington School of the Arts has proven itself to be that template.

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts is celebrating being the innovative difference for 40 years, with a number of performances and events throughout the year. To find out more about their initiatives, please visit their website.