To hear Kenya Jones tell it, you’d think she’d chassed right out of her mother’s womb. The 17-year-old was born into a family of dancers. Her mother is a dance teacher and owns a studio in Washington, N.J., where she teaches jazz, ballet, and modern styles of dance. Kenya’s younger brother studies all kinds of dance moves. And Kenya started classes when she was barely more than a toddler. “It wasn’t something I asked to do,” she says. “It was just my nature.”
When Kenya was 3, her mother would drive her to Saturday classes at a studio an hour from their home, where she would study ballet and jazz. She added classes as she got older and stronger. When her mother opened her own studio, called Dance Sensations, when Kenya was 10, Kenya was there several evenings a week until 8 or 9 o’clock, executing steps or helping teach. But really, Kenya says, the dancing never stopped. Even when she was sitting in classroom chairs or watching TV, Kenya’s body would bounce instinctively, playing out the music she heard in her head. After class some nights, Kenya says she and her mother and brother would put on Tina Turner or Michael Jackson and glide around on the kitchen’s tile floor.
But Kenya wanted to further immerse herself in the world of movement. After a family friend who lived in D.C. told her about the Duke Ellington School of the Arts—one of the few public high schools in the country that push teenagers to develop artistic skills, along with their academics—in the summer of 1997, Kenya visited the school almost immediately. She auditioned the same day and was accepted on the spot. “I felt, in New Jersey, I had learned all I possibly could, that I was doing the same steps, the same moves,” says Kenya. “I was dead-set on going to Ellington.”
Her determination got her the audition and acceptance, but Kenya needed to be a resident of the District to attend the school for free. Her mother couldn’t leave behind her established dance studio, so Kenya contacted her father, Woodrow Jones, then living in Miami, to plead her case. Jones didn’t need much convincing. A freelance writer, Jones was working as a training coordinator for Home Depot at the time and had only $600 to his name. He moved to the city in November 1997 and managed to talk a landlord into renting him a one-bedroom apartment in Brookland without a security deposit. Kenya started as a sophomore at Ellington that fall. “I just have that feeling that, when kids today—when they have any passion, you have to really support them,” says Woodrow Jones.
But Kenya soon found that her ambition and her father’s support were not enough to get her everything she wanted in a school. Now a senior at the school, she loves the flexibility of Ellington’s class schedules—there are many hours of instruction in dance, and there’s plenty of time to display her skills during performances. But Kenya says the academics are dim in comparison to her classes back in New Jersey, and she doubts that she’s prepared for college next year. She and her father say that they struggle to get basic information from the school, and that constantly changing principals produce turmoil in an already poorly managed front office.
You don’t have to look farther than the massive, crumbling building that houses the school to see that the place isn’t the impeccable institution some describe. Last year, Kenya tried to organize a cleanup committee among her classmates because she was so disgusted with the condition of the dance studio and dressing rooms. Floors and windows go unwashed. And Kenya says roaches infest the showers in the girls’ locker room—not that any of the spouts actually work. But students soon lost interest in Kenya’s hygienic cause—preferring, understandably, to spend their lunch hour with friends rather than scrubbing the bathroom floors. “It was gross,” she says. “It still is.”
Kenya and her father aren’t the only ones to notice that Ellington’s dreamy promise dissipates in the light of the school day. Although the school receives national and local acclaim—and is considered one of the few bright spots in an otherwise overwhelmed D.C. public school system—parents and teachers say that backstage at Ellington, things are a mess. School heads say they’ve habitually scrambled to come up with enough funds to maintain both the arts and academics. The building that houses all of the performing talent is a nonperformer. And even though it’s situated in a prime Georgetown location, the giant, aging structure needs endless maintenance and renovations.
In 1998, Ellington co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz and other school bigwigs considered converting the school to a charter—thinking that it might be better off trying to solve its problems on its own. City and school officials intervened, no doubt concerned about losing one of the few assets in a system that needs all the sparkle it can get, and promised to accommodate the school. Now, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Ellington higher-ups are in the final stages of signing off on an agreement that will create a new form of independent management of the school, which will remain a part of DCPS. It’s a creative approach that some say will be a boon for Ellington, as well as a sign that the antiquated school system is open to innovation.
Few public schools are so infused with political maneuvering. By most accounts, Ellington is not some distressed little neighborhood school down the block. Significant and monied constituencies had to come together to make the school happen in the first place. And Ellington is where it is today only because people who would otherwise have nothing to do with D.C.’s public schools have showered it with their attention and money. Even with its building in its current state of disrepair, the program is still a jewel. The power players behind it will no doubt make it better. All it took was one little charter threat to get the school system to pipe up and offer Ellington leaders just what they want.
But, of course, not everyone’s excited about the bold new world at Ellington. Many parents and teachers are peeved that most of the decisions are being made during meetings they’re not even invited to. There are also people like Jones, who says that it’s too late for kids like Kenya. “I feel shortchanged for my daughter, because I know there’s the potential there, but there’s something in the system that’s rotten,” says Jones.
At Ellington, the school day starts out smooth and cool. By 7:30 every morning, the hallways are filled with the sound of jazz, which floats down from speakers mounted on the walls, courtesy of the school’s own radio station, WDUK, run by students and teacher Lew Berry. Berry has some rules for its playlist: only classical or jazz in the morning—usually a lot of Duke Ellington tunes, of course—and then rock, hiphop, or what-have-you in the afternoon. (By 11:30 on a Tuesday, somebody’s playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”)
It’s a pretty and unusual picture. Sure, there are some traits of the typical urban high school: It’s only minutes before the first bell (at Ellington, the sound is a train whistle), and latecomers stream in the front door through a metal detector. But school higher-ups say that Ellington, which has few violence problems, has the security contraption only because the school system requires it.
The lobby of the school puts people on notice that they are entering semi-hallowed ground. The front entryway is filled with an exhibit called “Reflections,” created by the school’s own Museum Studies Department. It features displays of Ellington graduates, like Dave Chappelle, class of 1991, now a comedian and actor—in movies like Half-Baked—and, of course, Denyce Graves, world-famous opera singer and a 1981 Ellington graduate.
Take a look down the hallways and you’ll see clear indications that the arts are woven into the fabric of the place. In one corridor, two students sit amid bags and sheet music, one strumming away on a guitar. And down another, a girl with a tight ponytail, dressed in T-shirt and black sweats, practices a few pirouettes out in front of her locker. It’s not exactly Fame, but in the District, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.
But close doesn’t cut it for co-founders Cafritz and Mike Malone. In the spring of 1967, the two, who were dating at the time, helped organize a black arts festival sponsored by George Washington University (GWU) students. The event attracted kids from all over the city, who put on dance and music performances as part of school or community groups. “I said to Mike that there are a lot of kids who are really talented but have no polish,” Cafritz says now.
Malone challenged her to create a program that would provide an institutional outlet for all of the young talent she saw. Cafritz doesn’t back down on dares. A longtime local arts activist, Cafritz has headed the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities . In 1994, President Clinton appointed her vice chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Mayor Anthony A. Williams recently appointed her a trustee on the board of the University of the District of Columbia. When she’s not sounding off on various local and national committees, she’s broadcasting her priorities on Around Town, a weekly television program that doles out criticism on the local arts scene. Formerly the wife of big-time real estate developer Conrad Cafritz, the Ellington co-founder has achieved an esteemed place in D.C.’s social and arts circles.
Before all of that, she was a GWU student with an idea. In response to Malone’s 1967 dare, she wrote a three-page proposal and took it to then-GWU President Lloyd Elliott, who agreed to donate space for a summer arts program as long as Cafritz came up with the cash. By that summer, she’d raised $90,000, mostly from the city and the Hattie M. Strong Foundation, and started the program with 90 students. Malone served as program director.
Within two years, Cafritz and Malone had expanded the program, called Workshops for Careers in the Arts, to include after-school instruction. In the ’70s, they moved the classes to a warehouse on Georgia Avenue. By 1974, they had more than 250 kids enrolled and needed more space. Cafritz went to DCPS officials that year and was granted a portion of the Western High School building. There, Cafritz and Malone expanded the program to include academics and last throughout the year, and also renamed it after the Washington-born jazz great who died that same year.
Since then, the school has served as an aiming point for a desperately struggling school system—offering the sort of innovative arts-oriented program you rarely find in big-city school districts, let alone in D.C. About 500 students attend the school; they come from all over the city. The school also attracts a handful of Virginia and Maryland residents, who pay about $7,000 in tuition to attend Ellington. Every year, those students—with talents in dance, music, theater, writing—perform locally and all over the world. For the last two years, the jazz orchestra, the New Washingtonians—named after Duke Ellington’s onetime band—has performed in the Marciac Jazz Festival, held in southern France. And last year, the school’s show choir held performances in the Caribbean and Germany.
But Cafritz and others say that the onstage mastery masks problems back in the prop room. The constant strife and struggle to survive are as much a part of Ellington as are its stories of fame. Cafritz says that from the very beginning, Ellington teachers and organizers were up against massive disapproval from traditional educators, who felt threatened by a couple of kids who wanted to come in and teach dance as part of the regular school day. Ellington may have started out as the lovely offspring of a marriage between private effort and public monies, but it quickly became something of an orphan. “We’ve always had support from superintendents—all 5,000 of them,” says Cafritz. “But just below the level of superintendent there was a seething resentment of Duke Ellington, a feeling that we were from the outside and we were very young. We were kind of revolutionary to their way of doing things.”
Cafritz says that the hostility has remained a barrier for Ellington teachers and organizers. Even DCPS administrators who appreciate the Ellington program haven’t provided the resources necessary to run both an academics and an arts program in one building during one school day, says Cafritz. The school receives a $2.9 million budget from DCPS, but Cafritz says that since the school’s inception, administrators have regularly rummaged for enough cash and teachers to cover all of the classes and events.
A person of means with access to other people of means, Cafritz learned early on to look outside of the DCPS bureaucracy to attract plenty of would-be donors. Before Cafritz and Malone moved the program to a DCPS facility, fundraising for the school was handled by a nonprofit. Once Ellington became part of DCPS, Cafritz maintained and expanded the nonprofit, naming it the Ellington Fund. The Ellington Fund now has an office on the first floor of the school and raises more than $1 million a year, says Executive Director Debra Montanino. That money pays for the school’s Museum Studies Department, as well as salaries for extra teachers and a stipend for each school department. But even so, there hasn’t been enough funding for a program as ambitious as Ellington’s. “We always knew we’d have to raise some money to bridge the gap between ‘good’ and ‘excellent,’” says Cafritz. “We did not know we’d have to raise money to bridge the gap between ‘bad’ and ‘sort of good.’”
The scarcity of resources means that the synergies that might be available across the various disciplines in the arts are left unexplored. Teachers often struggle against each other to get the money they need for their individual departments, says Malone, now artistic director at the school: “In order to survive, each area of arts had secluded itself, and there was not a great deal of cooperation among the arts.”
Parents and students say that in the tug-of-war between performing arts and academic pursuits, book learning has lost out. Waylaid by a desire to churn out the next Mozart, the school can’t seem to keep many kids at their academic grade level. “You may have kids who can sing an aria, but you have that kid who can’t write a decent sentence,” says Doris Howard, a former Ellington PTA president.
DCPS figures show that Ellington students’ standardized test scores are the fourth-highest in the city, but parents and teachers point out that the bar isn’t high enough to be meaningful. And, while Ellington Fund numbers report that more than 90 percent of students are accepted to college, parents say many of them don’t stay there because they’re not prepared academically. “I’ve seen too many kids leave there and go to college for one year, and then not go back,” says Howard.
Ellington might not be so prone to turmoil if it had a strong, stable leader—like, say, a principal. But at Ellington, there seems to be a trapdoor located somewhere in the vicinity of the principal’s office. That office has been the working home of eight principals or acting principals in the school’s 25 years of existence—three in the last five years. Teachers, parents, and students all say that principals—more than anyone—feel the tension of juggling the arts and academics programs, of finding compromise between a troubled, antiquated school system and an inventive program founded on pushing at the boundaries of traditional education. “They just chew them up and spit them out,” says Howard.
Former Principal Okpara Nosakhere was the latest to leave, resigning in January. The official rap is that he left for “personal reasons,” according to a DCPS statement, although teachers and students at the school say he was an ineffective manager and that on a couple of mornings in the weeks before he left, they arrived at the school to find that someone had plastered the walls with fliers protesting his reign and the conditions at the school. (Nosakhere did not return two calls for comment.)
In 1998, when Cafritz and the Ellington Fund’s board of directors considered turning the school into a charter school, they reasoned that Ellington might have a better chance at stability if the school—and its principal—didn’t have a school system to answer to. They drafted a committee to put together an application, bringing in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and GWU as partners for the new school. Before they could submit the application to the D.C. Public Charter School Board, in the summer of 1998, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton learned of their plans and intervened, calling Cafritz, Ackerman, and other Ellington and DCPS officials to her office for a private meeting.
Norton’s spin was this: DCPS should find some way to keep Ellington in the school system, to give it independence and flexibility with management while maintaining it on the roster of District public schools. “I see no reason to twirl off every good public school in the District of Columbia into some sort of charter school,” says Norton now. “Even in a bureaucracy that’s as wooden as the District’s, you’ve got to work if you want to keep the best things continuing to be good.”
No more than 20 parents have shown for the first PTA meeting of the semester at Duke Ellington, but they turn out to be a rowdy bunch, so the first-floor classroom might as well be packed.
The gathering has a subdued start, the sort of awkward beginning that happens when a group of adults have gathered only because they have one shared interest: their children. A couple of latecomers slink into seats at the edges of the room, stealthy, sheepish looks on their faces, as if they think they may soon get a scolding from a teacher.
But there’s no teacher at the front of this room. Just PTA President Dan Harrison, who has squeezed his large round frame into one of the kid-sized desk-chair combos near the blackboard. He starts the meeting with dry talk about PTA fliers and SAT prep but soon launches into talk of the exciting new proposal Ellington and DCPS officials are now hashing out. “Some people call it an ‘independent school,’” says Harrison. “I like to call it a ‘new school.’”
He can reveal little more, he says, but he assures parents that the deal will take the school to new levels of performance. Of course, while talking about where the school’s going, he can’t help but dip into a little talk about where it’s been—about how it has struggled for years for adequate funding, how it has provided the city with a unique and innovative program—and how the city has never given anything in return. “DCPS has never, ever treated Ellington as a magnet school,” says Harrison, “although it is a magnet school.”
His gripes are contagious—and soon the meeting turns into a sort of revival, with all the parents sharing their Ellington-building-is-a-rathole horror stories. PTA Vice President Marylouise Uhlig jumps in to complain that teachers have to bring their own vacuum cleaners just to keep their classrooms neat, as well as supplies like soap and paper towels for their bathrooms. “And the restrooms on the bottom floor…” she says, ending with an implied “Tsk.”
Almost at once, the parents sigh and shake their heads in disgust. “It’s embarrassing,” says one.
“My son was sick and couldn’t use the bathroom,” says Harrison. “He went out and took a cab and went home.”
Everyone nods in understanding. Apparently, I’m the only one who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Uhlig sees my blank look and offers to take me on a tour of the bathrooms after the meeting, so I can see the filth for myself. “Maybe you can help us,” says Harrison.
But not even the first-floor bathrooms compare to what Harrison and other parents call “the lab situation.” Again, the room erupts into one giant sigh of disgust as soon as Harrison mentions it. Parents and Assistant Principal Treva Lindsey, also in attendance, say that the school has never had adequate supplies for science classes, like running water or gas for Bunsen burners. For years, students used to traipse down to nearby Hardy Middle School for their science instruction. But two years ago, DCPS officials promised that students could return to fully equipped Ellington classrooms. They sent in workers to hook up gas lines and fix the water taps, says Lindsey. Work stopped when a water pipe exploded and fluid ran into the room below. Lindsey says no one’s come to fix the science rooms since.
“We haven’t been able to make the administration understand the importance of having science here,” says Lindsey.
Uhlig does indeed take me on a tour of the bathrooms when the meeting is over. We, along with another parent and Uhlig’s husband, descend to the basement level and into the girls’ bathroom. The stench greets us first—a moldy, mildewy, rotten smell, which someone has attempted to kill with some sort of industrial cleaner that turns out to be equally suffocating. Uhlig flips on the light, and the tile floor moves below us—a dozen or so roaches scampering for their safety zones. The toilets are clogged in a few of the stalls, a couple of which lack doors.
It is disgusting, I have to agree. But I can’t help but wonder where the parents’ complaints rate in a school system plagued with facility problems. Ackerman, who took over a physically deteriorating system with many, many more problems than assets, says as much: “If you look at some schools, Duke Ellington is in much better shape.” And Ackerman insists that the problems at Ellington are systemwide issues and that there’s been no specific plan to do in the school. “The resource problems were across the school system,” she says. “We had some real issues related to facilities and some of the things they’re talking about.”
Norton backs her up. “I don’t see how anyone can point their fingers at the public school system,” she says. “This is an expensive school. This is a city just coming out of insolvency. It’s pretty hard to blame the District of Columbia for not throwing a lot of money at an arts school. We’re still trying to get kids out of slum school buildings.”
But even in that context, Ellington has some weighty facility issues. Formerly the home to Western High School, its building was constructed in 1898. It’s a massive structure—more than 167,000 square feet—that is kept from tipping over by just three overworked custodians. In the spring of 1997, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered DCPS officials to close Ellington, explaining that the stone steps along R Street, which had been propped up by wood planks, were considered a threat to students—and then only after a parent complained. Finally, it was neighbor Georgetown University—not DCPS—that swooped in to pay for the repairs.
Parents say that the school system overlooks the additional demands an arts program creates on a school structure. A class schedule that includes instruction and rehearsal time that lasts well into the evening means added wear and tear on an aging building. School performances also bring in plenty of outside visitors—and a greater need for regular maintenance. And “the lab situation,” they say, is symbolic of DCPS disregard for academics at an arts-driven school.
Cafritz adds that dealing with school bureaucracy has actually foiled some plans for school-building improvement. In 1994, singer Stevie Wonder and Motown Records offered to supply the school with equipment for a new recording studio. But the room where Ellington heads planned to put the equipment had a leaky ceiling, which would have destroyed the equipment. The Ellington Fund had already spent its money for the year, so Cafritz and other organizers begged the school system to make the necessary repairs. Six years later, the work still hasn’t been completed. Wonder’s offer has expired, says Cafritz.
Parents like Uhlig understand the demands of an urban school system, but they nonetheless grumble that a school that gets so much praise for its innovative program gets so little in real dollars to support it. “It succeeds in spite of itself,” says Uhlig. “What annoys me greatly is, when D.C. needs some entertainment, where do they come?”
Once the agreement is finally inked, probably in the next few weeks, it should look something like this: A separate nonprofit organization, known as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP), will serve as the governing body of the school, which will remain within the public school system. The board of about 15 will include designees from the Ellington Fund’s board of directors, including Cafritz, representatives from GWU and the Kennedy Center, the new Ellington principal, Ackerman, and representatives for the teachers, parents, and students.
Ellington will still receive funds from the school system and will continue outside fundraising. School organizers have proposed that DESAP should determine everything from finances to curriculum to personnel, as long as those decisions coincide with minimal DCPS standards, says the Ellington Fund’s Montanino. Ackerman will likely have veto power over most decisions, according to preliminary agreements.
Ackerman and Ellington organizers say that, as of now, there is an agreement in principle about the new plan; they hope to finalize the details in the next few weeks. The new setup will focus first on basics, like fully funding both the arts and academics programs and making needed repairs to the building. But Cafritz, always the visionary, adds that after a significant fundraising campaign, she hopes to construct a new building for the school, possibly designed by architect Frank Gehry, the mastermind behind the proposed addition to the Corcoran museum. “The possibilities are fabulously endless,” says Cafritz.
For one, the new arrangement will allow unknown freedom for Ellington. But Ellington founders and school advocates also say it could be a boon for the school system—proof that it is willing to innovate and compete in the charter-school age. “I think that this is a clear indicator of how charter schools can positively impact a traditional system and force them to change,” says Shirley Monastra, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center, who helped Ellington organizers with their 1998 charter application. “We want to spur the improvement. I think the fact that they’re sitting down and that the school system is responding to their needs, that’s a positive change.”
But, as is typical for Ellington, the negotiations haven’t come without dissension. Cafritz says that school higher-ups hoped to have the agreement signed weeks ago. Despite claims that the school system supports the concept, Cafritz says that DCPS administrators have been dragging their feet when it comes to fine-tuning the details. “The public school system has been jerking us around like crazy,” she says. And, in a January interview, Montanino didn’t rule out alternatives should the new deal not come through. “There’s always the charter option,” she said.
Ackerman says that negotiations are on track and that DCPS administrators have taken their time finalizing the agreement only because they hope to be able to use it as a model for the future. She asserts that the Ellington deal is, in fact, a sign that DCPS is open to inventive school programs, that such programs remain competitive with charter schools, and that the Ellington setup may have some things that charter schools don’t—like a clear accountability and monitoring process. “The goal is to put in place an alternative avenue for other schools that may be considering charter conversion,” says Ackerman.
But not everyone’s feeling so experimental. “I can honestly say that I don’t think that it’s been thought through enough for me to say yes,” says Gail Dixon, an at-large member of the D.C. Board of Education. Dixon worked at Ellington in the late ’80s as a program analyst. “We already have an experiment called charter schools that has not been proven yet, and to throw something else in would be detrimental at this point.”
Although parents like Harrison and Uhlig are hopeful about the new agreement, some are annoyed that they know so little about what seems to be a done deal. “I might approve of it,” says Woodrow Jones, Kenya’s father. “But I don’t like things going on that I don’t know about….I just feel uncomfortable because I didn’t feel I was given enough information as a parent to make an informed decision.”
Parental input has long been beside the point at Ellington—with the Ellington Fund and DCPS locked in a battle for control, parents often get squeezed out. “I get the sense they come looking for the parents only when they want them,” says one Ellington parent. “It’s almost like the attitude is that Ellington is a gift to us, but we really don’t have anything to do with design and structure of it.”
Ellington heads didn’t wait to get the green light from parents before they considered converting the school to a charter in 1998—a process that, in the end, requires approval from two-thirds of parents. In fact, the month before the July 1998 deadline, the PTA voted against submitting the application, says Howard. Cafritz and other Ellington heads planned to apply anyway.
Former Ellington parent and schools advocate Nerissa Phillips says that the latest agreement, which requires no parental approval, leaves parents out of an important decision that intimately affects their children. “It’s very probable this is going to be pushed through without parents’ knowing what’s going on,” she says. The new governance model could make parental input even more irrelevant, says Phillips. “Ms. Cafritz could pad that board with people she is very comfortable with. Then that means you’re going to get a principal who will not counter anything they do,” says Phillips. “I think Ms. Cafritz will actually run the school.”
Some Ellington teachers are also queasy about the new plan, with very good reason: The new agreement will likely require that Ellington teachers reapply for their jobs, and school organizers guarantee that a minimum of only 50 percent of teachers will be rehired.
Even those who would likely support the new plan, like veteran teacher Billy Harris, are ticked that the process has taken so long and that they still know so little. “I would have thought that if a merger were supposed to take place next year, there would be something [to direct teachers by now], since we are the ones who are supposed to carry out the task,” says Harris. “I’m not encouraged by that. For the school system, that’s pretty much par for the course.”
At Ellington, Harris is used to this sort of near-crisis. “Most of us have gone through a catharsis. We don’t really get angry anymore, because we’ve gotten angry so many times before and nothing happens,” he says.
“[Ellington] is probably one of the most wonderful places I’ve worked,” Harris adds. “It’s also probably one of the most frustrating places I’ve worked in my life—because it’s a developmental idea….That’s a difficult thing to deal with sometimes, because you’re serving so many masters.”
It’s a Friday evening, a little after 8 o’clock, and the Ellington school is filled once again with the cool sound of swinging jazz. But it’s not kid radio getting pumped in over tinny speakers. It’s the real thing. The New Washingtonians are center stage in the Ellington Theater under the careful watch of director Davey Yarborough, who, in tux and dreads, guides the group of 15 or so through a rendition of “The Queen Bee” by Sammy Nestico. The sound is liquid, pouring off the stage into the sparsely filled theater and to the hallways beyond.
In this sublime setting, it’s pretty hard to imagine the turmoil that has rolled through the school over the years. As the music floats through the school, the door from a downstairs classroom blows open, and seven dance students—some in partial dress—scramble up the steps. They are the members of a dance ensemble that will perform during the orchestra’s final selection. In 45 minutes, they will take on their roles as performers. Right now, they’re just teenagers.
One chats on a cell phone as she walks into the dressing room. The others fiddle with their outfits, adjusting the long striped skirts and head wraps, touching up their makeup. In a room behind the stage—a room filled with a mix of old props and instrument cases and half-filled pizza boxes—they stretch and practice moves, laughing at their mistakes. “I really forgot this,” says one. A teacher enters to nag them about ridding their bodies of socks and gum. They giggle and gather in front of a mirror for a last-minute look at their costumes—and the self-conscious vanity of adolescent girls overwhelms. “Oh God, I look so fat,” says one.
But the mood changes as the orchestra glides through the next selections—a Johnnie Mercer number, some Ellington tunes—and comes closer and closer to the girls’ song. When ballet teacher Peter Romero, a short, bearded man wearing a black T-shirt and multiple earrings, enters to usher them backstage, they stand up straight and stop the twittering—their faces still and serious. There is no more giggling. It’s show time. And at Ellington, where performance is as much a part of school as are crushes and homework, show time has a code of behavior all its own.
They take their places on the stage while the orchestra preps for Ellington’s “The Peanut Vendor”—seven teenage girls standing motionless in the dimmed light. As the lights brighten and the music starts, so do they, gliding across the stage with graceful precision—displaying the turns and positions they’ve spent hours of class time and free time practicing. They smile with energy, but it is the cool happiness of trained performers, not the giggles of teenagers.
When the music ends, they prance offstage, with a confidence and poise that can’t be taught. Or can it? When Ellington—the school and the music—is in full swing, it’s hard to tell.
Backstage, the girlishness resumes. They grab slices of pizza and remove pieces of their costumes as they make plans for their Friday night. “I think we did all right,” says one, as they barrel down the stairs.
You find a lot of this at Ellington—that strange mix of youth and refinement, of carelessness and careful study, of goofiness and artistic pursuit. And really, that’s why the school exists, as an institution to house and mold fledgling artists, to guide them through a delicate transitional time, when student becomes poet or dancer or painter. If Ellington founders and teachers are demanding about their school, it’s because the stakes are so high.
“Finally, there is a way to go from a ‘pretty good’ school to an ‘excellent’ school. Everyone thinks we’re excellent, but we’re not,” says Cafritz. “It has been 30 years, and I am very, very tired. But all I have to do is walk through the halls of Duke Ellington, and to myself, I refuse to admit that this is all they deserve.”
Onstage, the house lights have brightened, and Yarborough addresses the crowd. The dance number was technically the last selection, but Yarborough wonders if the audience wouldn’t mind listening to a few more tunes. The school is trying to record the performance, and he wasn’t happy with the first try. And after all, this is a learning experience, and another run-through could only help the kids. The crowd applauds its response. The house lights dim. Yarborough returns to his musicians and raises his arms, and the music starts again. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.