Within a matter of months, Jonathan Hobbs, like thousands before him, will graduate from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) with extensive vocal arts training and a bevy of professional experiences guaranteed to prepare him for the next level in his career.
Upon entering DESA’s vocal department in 2019, Jonathan found his niche as a bass baritone under the tutelage of Dr. Monique Spells, a DESA alumna, vocal instructor and director of DESA’s celebrated Show Choir. He did so through several hours of group and individual vocal instruction that kept him on campus more than eight hours a day during the academic year, and throughout the summer months.
The rigor of a DESA education continued even throughout the pandemic. Since returning to in-person learning, Jonathan and his peers within the vocal department have showcased their highly-developed skills throughout the city.
Most recently, DESA’s show choir performed before French first lady Brigitte Macron during her visit to DESA earlier this month. Other gigs this academic year include performing at a Black educators’ conference and at Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s investiture ceremony.
Jonathan said those experiences spoke to the uniqueness of a DESA experience that he and his peers want to protect from District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). That’s why, in his latest foray as editor of DESA’s student-ran magazine On the Bright Side, Jonathan and members of his editorial staff have galvanized their peers around a movement to stop DCPS from taking total control of DESA.
As the District’s only performing arts high school with a dual curriculum, DESA maintains autonomy of its arts programming. For nearly half a century, that arrangement has allowed DESA to provide top-notch instruction in dance, literary media and communications, museum studies, instrumental music, vocal music, theater, technical design and production and visual arts.
However, members of the DESA community, including Jonathan, fear that a DCPS takeover would eradicate such programming.
“The professional program allows us to have this training that other students wouldn’t have,” Jonathan said.
As outlined in its mission statement, DESA aspires to nurture and inspire passion for the arts in young talented people who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to develop their artistic skills.
“It’s amazing the things that [DESA founders] Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Mike Malone spoke about came true. You can’t get that anywhere else. We’re around people of our own ethnicity who want to learn about their craft. We get a lot of freedom of expression.”
A Legacy Under Siege?
For more than two decades, DCPS and DESA’s governing board, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project ( DESAP) have outlined the terms of their relationship in contracts that get renewed every five years.
In February, amid the latest round of negotiations, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said that DCPS planned to assume total control of DESA. He made that comment in the aftermath of sexual assault allegations that sparked concerns about DESA’s oversight and accountability procedures.
Months prior, DESAP members came to the table eager to secure additional funding for DESA’s dual-curriculum arts programming.
At this point however, DCPS continues to insist that all DESA teachers be certified and have a DCPS contract. If both sides can’t come to an agreement about the new contract by the end of the calendar year, each will have to submit proposals of their own.
DESA community members familiar with the negotiations said DCPS’ total control of DESA would decimate the school’s art programming. They’ve pointed to Brookland Middle School and Hart Middle School as examples where DCPS has fallen short in maintaining arts instruction.
Furthermore, DESA community members described DCPS’ demands as an affront to a vision set forth by founders Cafritz and Mike Malone.
In 1974, Cafritz, a philanthropist and longtime D.C. school board member, and Malone, a veteran Broadway choreographer and director, morphed what had been Workshops for Careers in the Arts into DESA.
Their new school would find its home on the campus of the former Western High School, perched on a hill in Georgetown in Northwest.
Since its inception, DESA has served as the District’s only performing arts public school with a dual curriculum, intended as a means of preparing students for the rigors of the various arts professions. Out of DESA’s nearly 200 teachers, only 30 have DCPS contracts. The rest are working artists in their own right who impart their wealth of knowledge upon their students.
Prominent former DESA students include comedian Dave Chappelle, opera singer Denyce Graves, hip-hop artist and multi-instrumentalist Christylez Bacon, singer Johnny Gill, actor Lamman Rucker, singer Ari Lennox and actress Samira Wiley.
Admission into DESA requires the completion of an application and an audition. Graduates, 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 has since continued to fight for parity in funding. Sandi Logan, DESA’s principal and head of school, said DCPS’ current per-pupil funding structure doesn’t take into account DESA’s expanded programming and large number of staff members.
Even with staff members’ passion for helping students, efforts to retain teachers have fallen short. DESA teachers, regardless of whether they have DCPS contracts, have been paid between 25 and 35 percent less than their counterparts at other District public schools.
However, that hasn’t been enough for Logan, and others at the table, to cede control to DCPS.
“We don’t have a clear plan from DCPS about what the transition would look like,” Logan said.
“We don’t have evidence of arts education investments. Arts teachers across the public schools are talking about the level of arts programming decreasing every year,” she added. “The administrative structure needs to support our arts teachers. We need support for dual instruction and infrastructure.”
The Nature of Ongoing Discussions
In a statement, DCPS said that leaders are having good faith discussions with DESAP about increasing staff compensation and strengthening administrative oversight to support a transition of school operations to the central office.
“DC Public Schools is proud that Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) is a world-class, pre-professional public high school for the arts,” the statement read.
“DCPS remains committed to preserving the integrity of the arts program and finding the best path forward to maintain its vitality and opportunities presented for our student artists.”
However, some people like Amber Golden remain skeptical of that narrative.
Golden, a DESA parent who serves as DESAP president and co-president of SHADE, DESA’s parent-teacher organization, said that DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee hasn’t been open to totally understanding the ramifications of a DCPS takeover.
Golden went further to explain that the negotiations between DESAP and DCPS originally focused on fully funding DESA. She said a takeover only came up in response to the old sexual assault civil suits that had been resolved in court.
Golden described Ferebee’s comments as disingenuous, especially since she hasn’t heard any reassurance from Ferebee that DCPS will increase the funding to support the teachers and infrastructure that has guaranteed the quality of DESA’s dual-curriculum arts programming for decades.
“The negotiations have made some progress,” Golden said.
“In the meeting with parents earlier this year, Chancellor Ferebee stated that his intention was to continue to fund the school like a traditional high school. This statement did not leave many parents feeling that he actually values and supports the dual curriculum program,” she added.
“When parents pushed him on that, he said DCPS would do a review of the curriculum but that is the purpose of DESAP. DCPS doesn’t have the qualifications to do that.”
A Former DESA Student Speaks
District native and GoGo pioneer Matt “Swamp Guinee” Miller didn’t graduate from DESA, but he credits his time there with expanding his worldview and laying the foundation for his efforts to spread a local musical genre throughout the African diaspora.
Miller, a founding member of Afro GoGo roots group Crank Lukongo, was a student in the Theatre department at DESA between 1982 and 1985. He said the performing arts school allowed him to pursue singing and other talents he developed under the instruction of Helen Flagg at Brookland Middle School.
While at DESA, Miller participated in plays and musicals. He also listened to GoGo tapes, attended GoGo functions and met students who would later become GoGo industry leaders. He said the level of rigor that he experienced during a pivotal time in his adolescence prepared him for the demands of his career as a musician and teacher.
“It was a unique time in my life coming out of Brookland Middle School,” Miller said.
“DESA allowed me to connect with people from other walks and feel good about it. You had to be disciplined and focused. A few people at DESA went on to become top go-go musicians. It had that element as well.”