- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

Many schools across the region are in transition, but, doubtless, few are more so than Ellington School of the Arts, the District's high school of performing and visual arts at 35th and R streets NW. Now in its 27th year, the school in Georgetown is experiencing new growing pains that many people closest to the place describe as producing a new spirit and vision that stem, in part, from having a new leader.

Principal Mitzi Yates, in her second year on the job, calls her domain an "independent public school," a hybrid of sorts, one that keeps her feeling frequently "suspended on two balance beams."
The mission, says Ms. Yates, is "creating a state-of-the-art educational institution that will draw innovative and creative teachers who will work toward providing educational opportunities for young artist-scholars to excel and contribute as members of society."
The former principal of the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, who is the outgoing president of the International Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools, took her lumps soon after her arrival. One of her earliest moves was getting certain faculty members who, in her view, objected to changes she hoped to implement, reassigned to other schools. "Little fiefdoms were created," is all she will say about the turmoil.
Since then, the literary media department under Mark Williams, formerly of George Mason University, has been reorganized to encourage more and different kinds of writing. English department head Charles Feeser, who says he wanted to teach in an urban environment, was lured from a respected Columbus, Ohio, magnet school and turned down offers from Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Dance department head Charles Augins, a professionally active choreographer who was with the school at its beginning before going off to Europe for 23 years, returned in 1999 and now says, proudly, that there are 13 men out of a total 71 dance majors, as well as a men's basketball team formed in conjunction with the D.C. School Without Walls.
Among other initiatives, Advanced Placement students in chemistry do lab work at Howard University. (Like many others in the system, the school's physical plant is suffering. Ellington is without a proper science lab but has three well-appointed dance studios.) A standard approach to writing essays was introduced across the curriculum this year so students would know what was expected of them in every class. Writing has become a way of teaching students how to think.
The school's management structure changed, as well. The Kennedy Center is now a partner in running the school, along with George Washington University, which has pledged technical and vocational support, and the District of Columbia Public Schools. Last year the Kennedy Center contributed $50,000 indirectly to the performing arts program by sponsoring, for example, ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell in a weeklong residency at the school.
When the partnerships were cemented in September 2000, the school became known officially as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project a public school with close ties to both the private and nonprofit sector, with a board composed of directors from all three. In addition, from the time of its founding by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, now the elected head of D.C. public schools, and Mike Malone, dean of arts, the school has relied on the nonprofit Ellington Fund to raise money as much as $1.2 million annually to supplement what the public school system provides.
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Traditionally, the school's Shepherding Program, run by Dean of Students John Payne, an Augustinian priest in civvies, provides mentors for all incoming students and arranges volunteer tutors who come mostly from nearby Georgetown University. More than $35,000 in Ellington Fund money is spent each fall on separate weeklong retreats for male and female students and staff before school starts, along with psychologists and social workers. This fall they were bused to the Shenandoah and spent one day walking seven miles up a mountain.
"Really difficult stuff can come to the surface about the challenges they face," Father Payne says. "You would be amazed what happens in the woods on the side of a mountain."
He says the school is definitely in "a new era" and describes its goal as "holistic not just asking students to be good artists but to be smart people and to give them what they need to make that happen."
"We've got to deal with the fact they have to be academically right on target and compete with anybody. The problem in the city is we dumb down to kids. Many come with deficits across the board. But they can learn and are incredibly bright. The most rewarding thing to see is a kid who thinks he can't learn and then realizes he can. That affects self-esteem in so many good ways.
"There are a lot of myths about this school, one of them being that it is a Georgetown school and all the students are rich. Nothing could be further from the truth." A total 24.5 percent of students come from wards 7 and 8, across the Anacostia River, and 27 percent from upper Northwest.
Unlike public charter schools, Ellington does not have to take every student who applies. Applicants go through a three-tier interview process, and, on the average, only half who apply are accepted. The school claims that more than 90 percent of seniors go on to college. Illustrious graduates include singer Denyce Graves and comedian David Chappell.
Few high schools offer a major in museum studies, as Ellington has done in an arrangement with the Smithsonian Institution. Nor is it likely that most public schools mark class changes with a whistle followed by musical excerpts: jazz Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," for instance or folk and popular tunes. True to their namesake, too, the "A" Train Honor Roll is for students with all "A"s and a "Duke Express" category for a 3.4 average.
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Such an operation requires a great deal of juggling. So much so that there were times last year when Ms. Yates, normally an outgoing, even-tempered personality with a strong sense of self-discipline, would come home too physically exhausted to talk. She would tell her longtime partner, Bob Rulli, a senior economic development specialist for Arlington County, that all she wanted was to be quiet and have a martini.
Ellington naturally is a high-energy field with its student body composed of so many motivated and talented students. Its reputation, however, suffered in the past from an emphasis on talent at the expense of curriculum requirements. Ms. Yates, who grew up in Takoma Park and took part in after-school dance workshops at George Washington University, precursor of the Ellington idea, acknowledges that change was long overdue: "We got comfortable with ourselves and kind of took things for granted."
When District residents Katy Kelly and Steven Bottorff honored their daughter Emily's request to "take a look at Ellington" as a possible transfer school for the Wilson High School sophomore, they admit they were skeptical. In Ms. Kelly's words, "we only agreed so we could talk her out of it." They had heard rumors about the academic programs not being strong enough.
They changed their minds after an initial visit. In Ms. Kelly's words, "We haven't found one thing wrong with it. Her teachers are far and away better than at the other schools she has attended. And you can call any teacher, and they will call back."
Emily Bottorff, 17, a talented singer who is now an Ellington junior, is equally enthusiastic. "Ellington is a hard school, and you have to push yourself. I was truly surprised," she says, praising the manageable size of a school that has 489 students in grades 9 through 12. "It's much more close-knit [than Wilson]. Like a family."
Although she is a minority in a predominantly black student population, "everyone is completely accepting," she says. "The only real downside is lack of sleep." But long hours spent rehearsing and "two to four performances a week" as a member of the school's renowned Show Choir facilitate bonding, she says. The well-traveled Show Choir will travel to China in summer 2002.
Vocal major and choir member Ashley Thompson, 17, a senior reached by cell phone between classes, agrees that there is a new spirit at Ellington, although she was unable to name any one thing representing change beyond saying, "It's a friendlier place."
Tari Thompson, Ashley's mother, agrees. An active member of the Show Choir parent support group, she says that in the current environment "there is more focus on the children and keeping their academics on a more significant level."
To that end, Cullen Swinson, the school's scholarly dean of humanities, has applied for a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study "how our approach to art and our philosophy of knowledge fits into the framework of a performing arts high school." What is needed, he says, is "to use arts to give a deeper understanding to each of our academic subjects."
Tension exists to some degree, he admits, between Ellington and DCPS's bureaucracy over contents of the curriculum and selection of texts. "Local targets [on test scores] are way too low." Ms. Yates, he says, offers hope. "She is good at holding people accountable and not being afraid of mixing things up, because a bureaucratic environment doesn't encourage change."

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