- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an independent public high school in the District, teaches academics on par with its nine arts programs, so it’s not surprising that 99 percent of this year’s graduating class will go on to college. That is well above the school’s typical average of 94 percent, according to principal Mitzi Yates.

A random sampling of graduates through the years indicates that a great many Ellington students stay connected to the arts in one way or another beyond college, and they do it in numbers that Ellington theater chairman Ken Johnson regards as higher than at many other, larger arts high schools in the country.

“We don’t have exact figures, but the percentage is very high for students that continue training in their major or discipline,” he says. “It’s almost as if they are programmed.

“Some of them will expand their universes [later] and then return to the arts,” he adds.

Mr. Johnson, who is also a free-lance director, has been with the school for four years. He calls Ellington’s conservatory-style approach an exacting pre-professional training program that encourages the necessary discipline and focus needed to succeed in the highly competitive performing arts field. The school requires an audition for entrance, just as many performing arts jobs do in the outside world.

“As a young dancer — whose career is much shorter than any of the other art forms — you come into the dance program, and in a couple of years, you can be onstage dancing in Los Angeles or New York,” he says.

That is the plan of Adriene Barber, 18, a dance major who graduated with honors this spring and will be going this fall into a bachelor of arts program at Fordham University in New York that is run in conjunction with the Alvin Ailey Dance American Theater.

“Out of the program’s first graduating class of 15, 12 have jobs with professional dance companies,” she says, crediting Ellington with giving her the push to get into an intensive Alvin Ailey summer dance course three years ago.

Ellington never has tracked the career paths of its graduates. The School of the Arts at Western High School, begun in 1974, changed its name to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1976, and to date the school has not sponsored a formal alumni organization. To remedy this, the Ellington Fund, the school’s nonprofit fund-raising arm, recently began an online registration effort, hoping alumni will respond to the part of the Web site (www.ellingtonschool.org) that says, “Are you an Ellington alum? Please tell us about yourself.”

Conducting such a survey takes money, notes theater faculty member Donal Leace.

“The school, since its inception, has been struggling to survive,” he explains. “It would have been a great idea to take a picture of every celebrity who walked through those doors — probably in the hundreds — and keep a record of every kid who graduated. Harvard and Yale have people who are loyal for life.”

Prominent among past graduates are comic Dave Chappelle from the class of 1991 and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, class of 1981. Miss Graves, who went on to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio — the first person in her family to go to college — heard her first opera as an Ellington student.

“Ellington gave my life a real sense of purpose and direction,” she says over the phone from Tanglewood, the well-known music center in western Massachusetts. “All that I am and I am becoming is because of the foundation I got at Ellington.” She has been back to the school to give master classes and this spring bought tickets for some of the voice students to attend her Washington recital.

Mr. Johnson points to less high-profile but equally ambitious graduates who have stayed the course. “I’m talking boatloads of them,” he says. “People working as performers, agents, directors, dancers.”

Some, such as singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello of the class of 1986 — born Michelle Johnson — and actor Lamman Rucker, class of 1989, a regular in the CBS daytime drama “As the World Turns,” are successful by any standard in theater and recording artist circles.

With a musician father and theatrical mother, Mr. Rucker had plenty of encouragement at home. In addition, he comes from a long line of educators and other professionals. He obtained a master’s degree in education at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University and juggled jobs and interests along the way: teaching, semipro basketball and modeling among them.

“The way I was taught at Ellington is when you are onstage and performing, you are giving something away,” he says. “When I was in the classroom, giving a business presentation or playing ball, you want to do the best job, but you have a responsibility to share and communicate with an audience.”

The standards of professionalism learned in high school also can apply to career choices outside the entertainment world.

Graphic artist John Anderson Jr., class of 1979, formerly assistant art director at National Geographic, recently set himself up as a free-lance illustrator and shares a studio in Silver Spring with Wardell Parker, another Ellington graduate.

“The work ethic was the key. They really drill it in,” Mr. Anderson says. A design major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, he graduated in three years and went on to Pratt Institute in New York.

“At Ellington, you really have to be true to your art, and the art has to be true to you. That is their visual arts slogan and the kind of mentality I tried to keep.”

Adia Howard-Stroud, a museum studies major from the class of 1999, is an advertising print intern at the Kennedy Center. Dance major Brette Mead from the class of 1997 is a financial analyst who dances on the side. She plans to get a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Maryland in the fall. Visual arts major Bastian Campbell from the class of 2003 designs labels for a friend’s clothing company locally and will enter Pratt Institute next spring.

At least five graduates from different years are involved in nonprofit projects relating to the arts field.

Professor and playwright Marta Effinger, a literary and media arts major in 1988, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and Yale and earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary theater from Northwestern. She teaches African-American literature at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn. Two years ago, she started a consulting group called the Mosaic Project, which designs student educational materials for arts organizations.

Taniza Holmes, a literary and media arts major from 1998, handles professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville. She is working with fiance Timothy Craggette of the class of 1997 to set up a nonprofit organization that will aid students seeking to further their connections and resources in commercial and comic art.

Literary and media arts major Marceia Melton from the class of 1994 has a journalism degree from the University of Maryland and works for the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families. She and fiance Clide Cork, a 1993 visual arts major now in information technology, are launching a nonprofit mentoring program for artistic-minded young people who need help finding jobs. The couple plan to be wed in the theater entrance lobby at the Ellington School in September.

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