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Change doesn’t come easy at the Duke Ellington School. Just ask some of the teachers who may have to leave it.

Most college professors would never consider a high school teaching post. But when Michael Auld, an experienced sculptor and illustrator, left his temporary job as a graphic design instructor at Howard University in 1982, he wanted a position that would keep him in close contact with young artists. When he heard about an opening for a sculpture and art-history instructor at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a D.C. public high school, he thought it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

But teaching high school was no easy gig—especially at Ellington, which has struggled to prosper since its inception in 1974, despite the help of a nonprofit group that raises an extra $1 million per year to support the school’s unique arts curriculum. When Auld started at Ellington, he found that many of his students were “comic-book survivors,” as he calls them—whose only arts training had been copying illustrations of the X-Men and Magnus, Robot Fighter. The teaching conditions weren’t much better; they still aren’t, says Auld. “In the winter, [my classroom is so hot] you can fry an egg on the floor because of a busted steam pipe,” says Auld. “The walls are crumbling.”

Auld also says teachers didn’t get much help from the administrators at Ellington, where principals tend to last as long as high school romances. The school has had nine principals in its 26 years of existence—four of those in the past six years. Despite the challenges, Auld stayed on. “I’m there to be a teacher,” he says. “I’m there to prepare them for the future, regardless of the type of difficulties [I] have with the administration.”

As it turns out, the latest administrative change may mean the end of Auld’s tenure at Ellington. After unsuccessfully attempting to convert Ellington into a charter school, co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz—now president of the D.C. Board of Education—spearheaded an effort to create a new model of governance for the school. Last year, Cafritz and other Ellington leaders inked a deal with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and city officials to establish Ellington as an “independent” school (“Tough Gig,” 2/18/00). The arrangement meant that Ellington would remain a part of the DCPS system and still receive public funds, but its independent status would give administrators more freedom to make changes in curriculum and staffing. Cafritz and others heralded the new model as a bold move for a clunky, overburdened school system—and a boon for Ellington.

But some parents and teachers worried that the murky details of the new arrangement could allow for some heavy-handed school leadership. Skeptics found their fears heightened three weeks ago, when Auld and 10 other teachers—some who’d survived the school’s rockiest times—received letters from Ellington’s new principal, Mitzi Yates. The letters advised the recipients that it was in their “best interest” to “seek other teaching experiences outside of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts,” and encouraged them to contact DCPS officials about transferring to another school.

Yates says the letters serve as a “precursor” to involuntary transfers, adding that she’ll meet with the teachers soon to explain her reasoning and make final decisions. She will not comment, however, about the details of the targeted teachers’ performances. “I would say that every single employee at Ellington has had seven months to demonstrate that they are part of a shared vision of moving that school forward,” says Yates. “For those teachers who did not have that vision, they are the ones that were identified.”

Some Ellington teachers and advocates worry that the unexpected transfers are a sign of the tyranny they feared. They contend that Cafritz’s new role as school board president allows her and Ellington leaders to have unfair leeway when it comes to making changes at the school. “It’s the same kind of maniacal control that [Cafritz] is trying to put on the Board of Ed,” says Gail Dixon, a former school board member who once worked as an Ellington program analyst in the ’80s. “I feel very uncomfortable with anyone doing that. These are public tax dollars. If [the teachers are] deadwood, yeah, let’s get rid of deadwood everywhere. But let’s not single-handedly decide to have people replaced. And that’s what I see happening. I would say that on a number of fronts, this needs to be investigated.”

Auld and other teachers targeted for involuntary transfer argue that Yates’ actions are unwarranted and unfair. Few of the teachers have received formal performance evaluations this year, says Delria Johnson, an English teacher at Ellington. Johnson also serves as building representative for the school’s unionized teachers, and she was among the teachers who received a letter from Yates. She suspects the transfers are targeted at teachers belonging to the Washington Teachers’ Union, which has battled with Ellington administrators regarding several components of the new school model. Johnson observes that all but one of the teachers “on the hit list,” as some school staff describe the group, belong to the teachers’ union.

Auld is fighting his transfer. Like Johnson and many of the other teachers who have been asked to leave, he plans to file a grievance with the teachers’ union. “In all honesty, it would be a relief to me [to leave], because then I’ll be out of all that craziness that I’ve experienced over the years,” says Auld. “The only people I feel for are my students. They’re all torn up about this.”

Ellington students don’t usually have much to protest. In the two years he’s been at Ellington, sophomore Charles Gushue remembers students complaining about school discipline and a half-baked sit-in some upperclassmen held earlier this school year to protest the cancellation of the winter ball.

But when Gushue and some of his classmates heard about the letters encouraging some of their favorite teachers to transfer, the usually pleasant student body turned political. He and some friends had a meeting with Yates, and they are considering a protest. “If it comes to a protest, my feeling is it should be full-blown,” says Gushue.

Gushue is seated at a table at a Starbucks near Ellington on an early April day with about a half-dozen classmates. They drop words like “union-busting,” “McCarthyism,” and “witch hunt.” In the middle of the table is a plain Manila folder, filled with copies of the transfer letters, a list of the teachers slated for removal written in pencil on a folded piece of notebook paper, and a copy of the agreement Ellington leaders signed with DCPS and city officials.

It’s not your standard after-school scene. But Gushue and his cohorts insist that these are not standard teachers. “It just seems wrong,” says Gushue. “I mean, these teachers have been working there for 15 or 20 years, or for a long time, and they’re good teachers….These are people who come to every performance. You don’t just say to someone who’s been there for so long, ‘You may find another job.’”

Protest-threatening students are only the latest hiccup in the grand plans some have harbored for Ellington. In 1998, Cafritz and other Ellington administrators thought they could solve the school’s problems by opting out of the DCPS system and converting the school to a charter. Unable to get the required two-thirds approval from parents and teachers, and waylaid by city and school officials wanting to keep the arts program in the school system, Cafritz and others dropped the charter idea and instead came up with the independent-school model. They signed on with both the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and George Washington University, which served as partners in designing the new school, and began to hash out the details with DCPS officials and Ellington staff.

Last summer, school officials and Ellington teachers threw up their hands in frustration because they couldn’t agree on a new contract for the 35 unionized teachers at the school. The union teachers voted to reject the proposal put forth by school administrators, says Johnson, because they thought it gave the school’s executives too much leeway to hire and fire staff.

Relations between some union teachers and Ellington administrators didn’t improve last fall, when the daily schedule was changed only weeks before the school year started—moving the previous start time from 8:30 a.m. to 8: 15 a.m. and shortening the class periods during the day. Johnson says the changes violated teachers’ union contracts, prompting some teachers to refuse to show up at the earlier time. Last winter, administrators switched the start time back to 8:30 a.m. and returned the class periods to the original schedule. Johnson believes that the transfer notices are an effort to get rid of some union teachers for good.

Yates denies “union-busting” motives, but she agrees the involuntary transfers are an effort to fight resistance at the school. “I was hoping that with the start of the new year…that wouldn’t it be great if we just all got along. On the surface, that happened,” says Yates. “But there was a vocal minority that was definitely skeptical, definitely resistant, who didn’t want to be a part of this team.”

Yates knows Ellington as both student and principal. She studied dance in the summer program Cafritz and co-founder Mike Malone began in the late ’60s—a program that evolved into the present-day Ellington School. Formerly a principal at an arts high school in Connecticut, Yates admits that the transition to the new model at Ellington has been pocked with difficulties, but she contends that progress has been made over the school year, including putting the final touches on a new curriculum designed with help from consultants at Harvard University.

The latest personnel changes are part of the drastic measures needed to continue the reforms at Ellington, says Yates. “This is a model school here that we are creating…which means there will be some discomfort in that process,” says Yates. “I don’t want these kids to be clueless about this world.”

The agreement Ellington leaders signed with DCPS and city officials gives Yates, as principal, “authority to select and employ” staff at the school, “subject to approval [by the nonprofit corporation that oversees the school] and any applicable bargaining agreement”—or union contract. Because school administrators have yet to negotiate a new contract with Ellington teachers, they are required to follow the existing agreement. That contract says that “[i]nvoluntary transfers shall not be made for reasons of disciplinary action,” but it offers few other details on acceptable reasons for such transfers.

Johnson argues that involuntary transfers are usually reserved for times when there are too many teachers at a school—a process known as “excessing.” According to the contract, in such cases, “preference shall be given to the teacher with the greatest number of years of teaching service in the D.C. Public Schools, provided the teachers are equally qualified”—which would mean that people like Johnson and Auld shouldn’t be the first to go.

Yates says the transfers at Ellington have nothing to do with getting rid of excess teachers. Wilma Bonner, DCPS assistant superintendent for senior high schools, says involuntary transfers “don’t happen every day” but that they’re usually caused by differences in “philosophical bents” between principals and teachers. Bonner observes that Yates, like other principals, must submit her recommendations for transfers to DCPS Superintendent Paul Vance, who will then make the final decision.

Johnson and parents like Susan Gushue—a schools activist and Charles’ mother—fear that Yates may gain undue favor because of the newfound power of school co-founder Cafritz, who is still an at-large member of Ellington’s board of directors. In January, Vance proposed adding $1 million to Ellington’s yearly budget—a proposal that raised the eyebrows of school board members and activists.

For her part, Cafritz says she never requested the additional funds, and she denies that Ellington gets special treatment because of her post. She says that although she’s still a member of the school’s board of directors, she hasn’t been to any meetings and has no involvement in personnel decisions.

Cafritz also seems untroubled about the unrest over Ellington’s proposed staff changes. “As we change at any level, anything, anywhere in a school system, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to have some rocky times,” says Cafritz. “I think it’s going to take a few years to fine-tune the whole thing [at Ellington]. That was true when they started Harvard.” CP