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  • Camille Galvani

DCPS Plan to Intervene in Duke Ellington Administration Sparks Student Backlash

Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Burlieth / Credits: Mari Abbate

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) community has long valued the school’s focus, unique in DCPS, on the performing arts. But now, students are worried that interference from DCPS will take away the very thing they love about it.

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said in a statement last year that DCPS would “assume full operation” of the school, eliminating DESAP’s current role. The proposal outlined by DCPS would have all teachers become DCPS employees, thus increasing their pay and putting their personnel files in the hands of the central office due to concerns about teacher licensure and school recordkeeping following sexual assault allegations against a writing


Unlike every other DCPS high school, the school system is only a partner in running the school — it shares authority with DESA’s school board, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP). For two decades, DCPS has provided funding in exchange for Ellington using DCPS core classes alongside its in-depth arts curriculum, according to the Washington Informer.

According to the Informer, only 30 members of DESA’s teaching staff have contracts with DCPS. The rest are working artists wanted for their lived expertise, hired by the school separately from DCPS. All other DCPS schools, including Walls, hire teachers through the central system. DESA teachers’ salaries are, on average, 25-35 percent less than those of other DCPS teachers.

Because DCPS’s teacher licensure requirement could eliminate many qualified artists from the teaching staff, the proposal has generated intense criticism among students and current faculty. “Replacing them would effectively break up the Duke community, and things would be much more structured, with much less freedom in our arts,” Duke junior Mari Abbate said. DCPS has said direct governance of the school will not adversely impact the existing curriculum. “DCPS is committed to maintaining the integrity and high-quality of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts phenomenal arts programming,” DCPS representative Enrique Gutierrez said in an emailed statement to The Rookery. “We value the arts professionals on staff and their unique expertise, and our proposal supports pathways both to licensure and compensation parity when licensure is not the best option.”

When asked about the school’s current environment, Miki Mulugeta, a senior and DESA’s student body president, said that he “truly can’t think of any changes I would want to see with how the school is run.”

Mulugeta said that “all of DCPS’s demands if they take over our school, even if not all of them explicitly mention students, will have a domino effect that will eventually trickle down and affect us disproportionally.”

Mulugeta highlighted students’ protests against the move. “Actions are being taken by both the student body and student government with video testimonials being recorded, multiple protests being both organized and executed, interviews with the press, flooding thank you letters to both the city council and the mayor for funding arts, an official student Instagram page being created for the movement,” he said. He added that students have created a “student Instagram page [@dukeellingtondc_students] for important information and updates on the protests.”

Gutierrez said that the details of the plan are not yet settled. “We are continuing to meet in good faith with the Board of Directors with a shared goal of a strong future for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts that includes improved support for student safety, operations, and accountability,” he said.

“Our school is all about freedom whether it be artistically, socially, or emotionally,” Mulugeta said, “and to take away our freedom to make our own decisions as a school would be to cripple all other values we have, since they would no longer be our values, they would be DCPS’s.”


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