The Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. boasts a 98 percent graduation rate in a public school district that only graduates 56 percent of its students on time. It is also the only dual curriculum program on the public high school level that attracts students from the entire D.C. metro area.
The school, founded in 1974, provides professional arts training and college preparation to talented D.C. public school students. Each student takes a full academic course-load and, additionally, majors in one of eight arts disciplines (Dance, Literary Media, Museum Studies, Instrumental or Vocal Music, Theater, Technical Design and Production, and Visual Arts), according to its website.
What makes this academic institution a success is its ability to fulfill the school’s proposed mission, to “give an artistic and academic opportunity to students who otherwise wouldn’t have this kind of unique opportunity.”
An Ellington education is no easy feat. Students have longer school days than the average D.C.P.S. student. Ellington holds classes until 5 p.m. every day. Ellington has two staffs: arts and academics. The respective faculties engage Ellington’s creative students with a curriculum that requires 34 percent more credits than other D.C. high schools.
“The majority of students at Ellington recognize that this is an opportunity of a lifetime to attend a school that speaks to their unique talents, gifts, and abilities,” Head of School Rory Pullens said.
“They have seen the success of the alum and know that they are expected to take their place in Ellington history and most of them will strive to become a professional working artists.”
An Indiana University study on Ellington School alumnae over the past 20 years has yielded a 77 percent rate of graduates landing work in arts related industries. The school produces well-educated people, who also happen to be some of the finest performers in this city.
They are young. They are mature. They have a confidence about them. Ellington School is where they cultivated the personal sparks they share with an audience when performing live.
Ellington’s students have performed for the Obama’s six times since the President was inaugurated, according to Pullens. “How often do you have the First Lady Request a special performance at your school and then bring the First Lady of Russia with her,” Pullens said.
It’s true. How often does that happen? If you’re the Ellington students then that’s common place. That says a lot about the kinds of performers that school’s got on their hands.
In between sets by Earth, Wind & Fire at their 40th Anniversary Celebration at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall February 24, a troupe of Ellington student performers took the stage for a medley performance akin to what Ryan Murphy would make the Vocal Adrenaline show choir do on an episode of Glee.
Dancers, strings, horns, winds and vocalists – each independent voice was heard. It wouldn’t have been crazy to assume, in the moment, that pieces of Earth, Wind & Fire’s band had stuck around to act as the Ellington singers’ backing band.
These kids are the real deal.
“My favorite music memory [from my time at Ellington] was after a Dreamgirls performance,” junior violin player Taylor Young said in an e-mail.
“A woman was astonished when she discovered that the Pit orchestra was not a recording [and was a group from Ellington School]. She was in awe. I felt great.”
They’ve played for the Obama’s and the First Lady of Russia.
They’ve performed at Bohemian Caverns and the Kennedy Center.
They’ve participated in Master Classes with Wynton Marsalis and Earth, Wind & Fire.
They describe themselves as: eclectic, expressive, straight-forward, random, imaginative, and optimistic.
What makes this group of student-musicians worth hearing about, albeit the fact that they’re young, is that they are vocal about their support for arts education. Junior trumpet player Jacob Rosenberg thinks that arts education is a good way of bonding and having music as positive effect in your own life, no matter who you are, should always be an option.
Young believes that the arts shape the world, culture and everything we do as people. “It’s only fair that we teach [the] arts,” she said.
“Now a days through school there is a lot stress and some people even turn to negative things, but it’s cool to know that I can turn to music anytime,” junior Percussion student Taylor Forte said in an e-mail.
Performing is a type of freedom to these students and music is their solace. The dual education provided by Ellington’s demanding curriculum is a motivator for young minds because they know that their hard work will yield results.
“I chose to attend Duke Ellington because it was the only school that understands how important academic success is to me, without undermining the importance of art in my life,” Young said.
It’s reassuring to know that in a tough economy, when the President is considering a 13 percent cut to the National Endowment for the Arts, the next generation remains optimistic.