In the beginning of March, Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) principal Sandi Logan and The Ellington Fund, which is DESA’s charitable arm, hosted “The Ellington Experience,” a showcase of performances from students representing all eight of DESA’s art departments.
“The Ellington Experience” took place weeks after community members led a protest at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest. The group gathered in opposition to an ongoing process that determines the conditions under which DESA will cede control of its affairs to D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).
Though she didn’t attend the protest, DESA community member Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea has espoused her support for DESA students, teachers and staff members. For her, the battle between DESA and DCPS brought to mind situations that leaders of successful majority-Black institutions often face after accumulating much success.
In the years since the death of DESA founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz, DESA community members have expressed concerns similar to Rucker-Oparabea’s about DCPS’ attempts to dismantle elements of the dual-curriculum program that has resulted in high attendance and graduation rates, and jump-started the careers of numerous alumni.
After failing to reach a consensus last year, DCPS and the DESA board known as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP) submitted proposals about the updated terms of DCPS and DESA’s relationship. Points of contention at that time included whether DCPS could support a funding model that covers arts faculty, administration, non-personnel spending and cost-of-living increases. DESAP also had questions about how DCPS could ensure equitable pay and predictable raises for teachers, regardless of certification.
Last month, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that negotiations are scheduled to wrap up by May. Despite assurances that DESA will maintain the quality of its programming under DCPS control, Rucker-Oparabea and others say they plan to continue organizing around the maintenance of DESA’s autonomy.
Rucker-Oparabea, a lifelong artist known to many as “The Dancing Diplomat,” credits DESA for providing her children, Lamman Rucker and M’Balia Rucker, with the technical skills and resolve needed to excel in their careers.
Upon graduating from DESA in the 1990s, Lamman entered the film industry, accumulating numerous acting credits on films and television shows, including OWN’s Greenleaf. Meanwhile, M’Balia followed in her mother’s footsteps, carving out her niche in liturgical dance and modern dance.
Years after her children left DESA, Rucker-Oparabea briefly served as an instructor, counting among those including Stevie Wonder and the late Whitney Houston who conducted workshops at DESA. Nowadays, while out and about in the D.C. metropolitan area, Rucker-Oparabea often encounters DESA alumni who are working in theater, film and the arts.
Rucker-Oparabea said her affinity for DESA, and arts education in general, comes from what she has seen it do for young people. She recounted seeing the arts save lives, including that of her children and other DESA students who travel from all corners of the District to pursue their craft for several hours at a time under the watchful eye of experienced and talented instructors.
“It felt like my children were going to college,” Oparabea-Rucker said. “They had such a rigorous schedule and such discipline in the academics and arts. I knew they would do well in what they chose to do. People [at DESA] give their time and energy [when they visit] without any compensation. It’s for the love of the students. Some of these children who come from challenged communities in D.C. get out and pursue something. They are invested in what they want to learn.”