While they are getting closer to reaching common ground, negotiations between the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project and DCPS continue regarding funding for the arts and teachers at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
While they are getting closer to reaching common ground, negotiations between the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project and DCPS continue regarding funding for the arts and teachers at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

During the holiday break, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP) and District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) came a bit closer to reaching a common understanding about the terms of the school system’s relationship with Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA). 

Both parties, however, missed the Dec. 31 deadline imposed by D.C. Council last year to sign a new contractual agreement. At this point in the negotiations, they must each submit a proposal of their own to D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2). 

Since DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee submitted his proposal last week, DESAP has spent much of their time responding to that document while crafting their proposal, scheduled to be delivered in mid-January. 

Points of contention continue to center on how best to ensure equitable pay and predictable raises for teachers regardless of certification, and whether DCPS can facilitate a funding model that covers arts faculty, administration, non-personnel spending and cost-of-living increases. 

“The chancellor is not willing to provide the full funding [and] it leaves the school at a deficit in terms of reaching pay parity for teachers,” said Amber Golden, a DESA parent and DESAP president.

Golden explained that DCPS  dropped its demand that the principal of DESA be a DCPS employee and that DESAP is now working to ensure all instructing artists meet necessary teaching mandates.

“We’re working on pathways for all working artists at DESA to be certified if they don’t meet traditional teacher requirements [but] we still need the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to engage with some of our arts departments so that it can better understand their work and why they have a different pathway.” 

DCPS central office didn’t respond to an inquiry about the specifics of the plan Ferebee submitted to the D.C. Council. During a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Bard High School Early College DC last week, Ferebee said that, during the negotiations, teacher compensation has been his focus. 

Ferebee later expressed a desire to see DESA staff become a part of the new arrangement so that the quality of instruction at the school remains the same. Even so, some parents and alumni continue to express skepticism about DCPS’ intentions. 

Some parents, including Maria Jones, have also hinted at what they described as ongoing attempts to turn DESA, an application-based public school, into a traditional District neighborhood school to satisfy white families in the surrounding communities perturbed by the overcrowding at Jackson-Reed High School (formerly Woodrow Wilson) in Tenleytown. 

In the fall of 2017, Jones, then the parent of a DESA freshman, counted among those who watched as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) smiled with and embraced the late DESA co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz and DESA alumnus and comedian Dave Chappelle during an event commemorating DESA’s renovation.  

Shortly after Cafritz died in early 2018, OSSE released a report saying that at least a quarter of the students at DESA falsely declared their District residency. 

As Jones recounted, DESA community members appealed to Bowser for support, but they were left to fend for themselves. 

When DESA parents took OSSE to court, OSSE was found in violation of due process in its failure to give families, many of whom were Black and lived in the eastern part of the District, an opportunity to address the residency allegations.

OSSE later reneged on its allegations, revealing that at least more than half of those accused of falsifying their residency had in fact been District residents. 

In a public hearing held by the D.C. State Board of Education in 2018, DESA parents said the damage had already been done to DESA’s reputation and students’ psyche. For Jones, the manner in which OSSE secured documentation upon which to base its accusations not only reflected a disdain for DESA’s success in elevating Black and brown talent, but a nefarious scheme to dismantle what Cafritz and Mike Malone built in the era of Home Rule and Black self-determination.  

“The white power structure and [some within] the Black power structure feel that Black children don’t deserve that beautiful school right on the hill,” said Jones, parent of a 2021 alumna and former president of DESA’s technical design and production parent body. 

“These are the things we have to constantly fight against as parents, parent advocates and people in the community. This is the extension of a war that OSSE, DCPS and the city started waging on DESA the week after Peggy Cooper Cafritz died.” 

For nearly half a century, the Georgetown-based performing arts school has leveraged its semi-autonomous status to provide students from across the District a dual-arts curriculum and a bevy of professional experiences that lay the foundation for successful careers in the arts. 

Admission into DESA requires the completion of an application and an audition. Alumni, most of whom graduate within four years, also accumulate more credits than the traditional DCPS student. 

When DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee made budget cuts in 2011, DESA went to great lengths to maintain its dual-curriculum programming, including allocating some of its DCPS budget toward the specialized arts instruction. 

DESAP members said DCPS’ per-pupil funding structure doesn’t take into account DESA’s expanded programming and number of staff members. Regardless of whether they have a DCPS contract, DESA teachers are often paid between 25% and 35 % less than their counterparts at other District public schools. 

Mendelson, who expressed his support for DESA’s dual arts curriculum, said that the D.C. Council wants a solution that Ferebee supports. While that hasn’t happened as of yet, Mendelson maintained hope about a changing of the tide. 

“I know that there is distrust and DCPS has done a lot to engender that distrust but supposedly everyone is on one accord,” Mendelson said. 

“The council has certain tools like the budget,” he continued. 

“We can also legislate if necessary but ideally we want a solution that the chancellor buys into and that hasn’t happened so far. But I’m committed to exploring every option the council can employ to get the chancellor there.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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