Duke Ellington School of the Arts athletic field athletic field Credit: Kelyn Soong

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In early November, Duke Ellington School of the Arts PTO president Howard Wilson attended an ANC 2E meeting. There, Ely Ross, the chief of staff for the Department and Parks and Recreation and one of the meeting’s speakers, told the assembled crowd about the imminent administrative transfer of the school’s athletic field from DC Public Schools to DPR.

“Whoa,” Wilson says he thought to himself. “This is going so fast.”

Wilson had not received any updates on the transfer since learning about it over the summer. The Northwest Courier reported in July that the move had happened without community input.

Parents have been “kept in the dark,” he says. The expediency and lack of transparency over the transfer of the field, located in the Burleith neighborhood, has been a cause for concern for community members and parents whose kids go to the local public schools. This controversy comes on the heels of DPR’s heavily criticized deal to give Maret School, a private school in Northwest, exclusive access to the Jelleff Recreation Center during parts of the school year through 2029.

City Paper has reached out to DPR about the Ellington Field transfer but has not received comment.

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A public meeting to discuss the field is scheduled for tonight. On Nov. 14, a letter of intent from Ross was sent out to Rick Murphy, chair of ANC Commission 2E, and ANC 2E01 Commissioner Kishan Putta, announcing that an ANC 2E meeting will be held Dec. 2. DPR will also host a community meeting during the week of Dec. 16 to “seek robust community engagement before undertaking a change of use or any capital improvement process,” Ross wrote.

In the letter, Ross also added that, “DPR takes seriously its responsibility as the stewards of the District’s parks and recreation system. Ellington Field, which features an unimproved and largely unmaintained grass field, will, once improved and activated, be better suited to accommodate multiple uses for neighbors of the field. The activation of the Ellington Field will result in increased community access to this facility for their neighborhood recreational needs while simultaneously providing local schools, such as Duke Ellington School for the Arts, Hardy Middle School, and School Without Walls, with a location to host after-school athletic activities.”

But trust for DPR among local residents after the Jelleff Recreation Center deal is low, says Putta. Parents like Wilson wonder who DPR will prioritize to use the fields. Nothing has been determined in writing.

In addition to the local public schools, the Georgetown University track and field team also regularly practices on the field. The private university provided funds to build the 320-meter track in 2005 with the intention to “offer Washington, D.C. public schools in the area and community groups a place for recreational activities,” according to a press release.

“Unless we have something in writing they won’t believe it,” Putta says. “I went knocking door-to-door in the neighborhood around Ellington Field, and people understand that playing fields are in scare supply in our city. We need playing fields, and there are more and more school kids. They’re going to need to play places, people get that. [But] they don’t understand why DPR did it the way they did. Why does DPR need to take it from DCPS, if they’re going to benefit public schools?”

ANC 2E has passed three resolutions calling for transparency of the transfer.

The communication and outreach to the community and parents have only begun recently, according to Valerie Jablow, an Ellington parent who runs a local education blog. She attended an Ellington PTO meeting last week where Ross was in attendance, and feels blindsided by the process.

“The school was kept out of the loop, clearly,” she says. “Parents were kept out of the loop. The decision making was at a high level and it didn’t involve the community most affected.”

Jablow wrote in an email dated Nov. 25 to DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee expressing her concerns. She pointed out that Ellington currently uses the field for school activities. 

That is something that worries Wilson, as well. He believes that DPR “doesn’t do a good job” of preserving green space for schools, and adds that he doesn’t want to find the school in a position where they can’t use the field if it’s “being rented out to some adult leagues.”

“Our concern is not having access to the field to do the things that we do,” he says. “The sports stuff, the PE stuff, and of course the band stuff that we do. We understand that the community uses the field. If you look at that field, it’s an awkward field. It’s really in the middle of the community. For us to use it, it’s beneficial … We just want to ensure that Ellington has use of the field.”

Martin Welles, the vice president for the Hardy Middle School PTO, wants DPR to pause the process so there can be a “conversation with DCPS as to why they’re giving up the field.”

Currently, there is no scheduling process for those who use the field, according to Welles. The schools and the community all share access.

“My real concern is this a slippery slope that DPR will start taking all the fields, putting it through a permitting process, and deprive and commandeer assets held in public trust for DCPS students,” Welles says. “It seems like an attempt to privatize all these fields.”