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The Duke Ellington School of the Arts

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, founded in 1974 by Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Mike Malone, represents a unique government-nonprofit-university partnership and offers specialized instruction in dance, vocal and instrumental music, literary media and communications, museum studies, theater and technical production, and visual arts.

The majority of power in this city is black, and the majority of money is white. . . . We’ve got to bring the two together. At some point in this society, everything has to converge.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz

Cofounder Peggy Cooper Cafritz, hailed at the time of her passing in a Washington Post obituary as a “grande dame of the Washington arts and education scene,” was no doubt a striking figure, both an activist and a socialite. Cooper Cafritz spent her childhood in Mobile, Alabama, during the Jim Crow era and then attended a predominantly white boarding school in South Bend, Indiana. When she arrived at George Washington University in 1964 at the height of the civil rights movement (and a decade before the Duke Ellington School’s founding), Cooper Cafritz was eager to challenge segregation on campus. She was an organizer in the school’s Black Students Union and successfully pushed for desegregation of sororities and fraternities on campus. Cooper Cafritz’s interest in improving race relations became a fixture of her career after college: in a 1979 interview with the Washington Post, she conceived her role as working “‘to bridge the great divides’ among the city’s factions in arts and politics. ‘The majority of power in this city is black, and the majority of money is white. . . . We’ve got to bring the two together. At some point in this society, everything has to converge.’” In addition to the Duke Ellington School, Cooper Cafritz was known for her preeminent collection of African American art, which she amassed after marrying into the Cafritz real estate fortune. Unfortunately, much of the collection was destroyed in a fire in 2009. In the early 2000s, Cooper Cafritz ran for public office, serving as the president of the DC school board for six years.Adam Bernstein, “Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Grande Dame of the Washington Arts and Education Scene, Dies at 70,” Washington Post, February 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/peggy-coopercafritz-grande-dame-of-the-washington-arts-and-education-scene-dies-at-70/2018/02/18/0f6bb948-14c1-11e8-92c9-376b4fe57ff7_story.html.

Cofounder Mike Malone has largely fallen out of public narratives of the Duke Ellington School due to his early death in 2006 at the age of 63, and to Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s towering profile in local media and politics. Malone is celebrated as a central leader in the black theater movement in Washington, DC, since its inception in the late 1960s. Malone produced street theater with students, directed and choreographed works at iconic DC theaters including Arena Stage (see the Arena Stage entry on the Mapping Cultural Philanthropy map) and the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, and led the DC Black Repertory Dance Company until 1977. He also played an influential role as a musical theater professor at Howard University.Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, “Director and Teacher Mike Malone; Nurtured D.C. Black Theater Scene,” Washington Post, December 6, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/05/AR2006120501511.html and Evelyn Collins, “Out of the Shadows: The Duke Ellington School of the Arts” (Ed.D. diss., Fordham University, 2018).

Roots in the Black Arts Movement

The Duke Ellington School was founded on a backdrop of a new black empowerment culture: the rising “Chocolate City” and home rule period of DC in the 1970s. Historians Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove recall this period in their 2017 chronicle of racial activism in the city: “In 1975, funk band Parliament released an ode to DC titled ‘Chocolate City,’ a nickname popularized by local disc jockeys such as Nighthawk in the early 1970s and embraced by the city’s black population. . . . For many black residents, Chocolate City captured the pride and promise of home rule. The city enjoyed a flowering of black culture and consciousness expressed in go-go music (a style indigenous to the city), the DC Black Repertory Company (where SNCC veteran Bernice Johnson Reagon and others founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock), and predominantly black Federal City College (folded into a new University of the District of Columbia in 1976). With an elected leadership that reflected the city’s 71 percent black population, Washington reasserted itself as the capital of black America.”Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 381. Based on these roots in the black arts movement, the school was named for famed jazz big-band composer and conductor Duke Ellington, a native of Washington, DC.

Cooper Cafritz met choreographer Mike Malone in 1968 at a black arts festival she helped organize while pursuing her law degree at George Washington University. Malone was completing a master’s degree at the time in French at Georgetown University.Peggy Cooper Cafritz, interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 26, 2001. The HistoryMakers Digital Archive, session 1, tape 3, story 1, Peggy Cooper Cafritz discusses opening the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Inspired by the inner-city students who had bused in to attend the festival and perform in a District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation-sponsored music production directed by Malone,Peggy Cooper Cafritz, interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 26, 2012. The HistoryMakers Digital Archive, session 2, tape 5, story 2, Peggy Cooper Cafritz recalls creating a black cultural arts festival at George Washington University in Washington, DC. the two artist-activists founded Workshops for Careers in the Arts (WCA), a summer training program for high school students. The program served 90 students in its first year, supported by GWU President Lloyd Elliott, who agreed to provide money and space for the workshops. However, WCA quickly outgrew its space at GWU. Six years later, in 1974, Cooper Cafritz and Malone took over the failing public Western High School and opened the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in its place, at the school’s present location in Georgetown’s Burleith neighborhood.Cooper Cafritz, interview by Richardson.

The founding admissions philosophy at Ellington focused on artistic talent, not on artistic experience or academic success. This has continued to this day. In the words of former Head of School Rory Pullens (2004–2015), “It was all about bringing on that kid, who had raw talent but didn’t have exposure, didn’t have training, and didn’t have the opportunity. If the kids were accepted in Ellington we could transform their lives. Those were the kids we were looking for.” The firmly affluent Georgetown area may seem an unusual location for a high school. Indeed, a majority of students commute from outside the school’s home Ward 2, and many families have even been accused of residency fraud—commuting from outside Washington, DC, to attend. Initially, Duke Ellington School’s location in an affluent environment was central to Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s mission of serving students with limited opportunity: “The kids needed to feel safe; that was very important for them to learn. Given the alternatives, we knew the kids would feel safe in that building.”Collins, “Out of the Shadows.”

Funding, Leadership, and Partners

The Duke Ellington School has undergone a number of changes in its funding and leadership structure throughout its more than four decades of public service, although it has always been financially supported through a series of private-public partnerships. The early days of the program were funded by private donations, but Cooper Cafritz worked to establish the school under the auspices of the DC school system in order to secure public funding.Collins, “Out of the Shadows.” However, the school has never been fully funded by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system, and has always relied on private funding as well.

The school’s current governance structure has been in place since the early 2000s, when Washington, DC, was swept by the charter school movement. Today, roughly half of the schools in the city are public schools and half are charter schools. Pushed along by this tide, Ellington proposed a plan to split from the DC public school system to form an independent charter school. Unwilling to relinquish such a success story of public education, DCPS settled on granting the school nonacademic curriculum autonomy, hiring autonomy, and its own chief executive and board of directors leadership structure, in exchange for keeping Ellington a DC public school.Duke Ellington School of the Arts, interview by Oliver York, January 14, 2019.

Today, the school is sustained by the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP), a four-organization partnership inaugurated in 2000. DESAP comprises DCPS, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, George Washington University, and the Ellington Fund. DCPS provides nearly 80 percent of Ellington’s operating budget and led the recent campus renovation initiative, as well as providing academic curriculum standards. The Kennedy Center offers in-kind support: master classes and lectures, professional development programs, and performance opportunities and spaces.“Partners,” Duke Ellington School of the Arts, http://www.ellingtonschool.org/about/partners/. George Washington University has remained a partner since providing the venue and institutional legitimacy for the first iterations of Cooper Cafritz and Malone’s Workshops for Careers in the Arts.Collins, “Out of the Shadows.” Today, it offers departmental collaboration, organizational management counseling, and college scholarships.“Partners,” Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

The final DESAP partner is the Ellington Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 1978 to raise funds in support of the Duke Ellington School’s arts programs. The fund augments the school’s budget and pays the salaries of arts faculty. As well as soliciting individual, government, corporate, and foundation grants, the Ellington Fund is well-known in the community for special event fundraisers, including the Performance Series of Legends and the annual Evening at Duke’s Place, which feature the performances of renowned artists, alumni, and students.Collins, “Out of the Shadows.”

Renovation

In the late 2000s, it became clear that the campus would need a substantial renovation to continue to be a suitable long-term home for the school. The central classroom building, designed for Western High School in a classical revival architectural style and now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1898. As well as refurbishing the structure, plans for the renovated campus projected a 10 percent growth in the student body and an increase in programmatic space to 260,000 square feet.James Partlow IV, “DC People & Places: Black History Spotlight - Duke Ellington School of the Arts,” Department of General Services, https://dgs.dc.gov/page/dc-people-places-black-history-spotlight-duke-ellington-school-arts.

It is believed Cooper Cafritz was set on a renovation while she was president of the school board, but she lost that role in 2007 when the incoming mayor followed his campaign pledge to transform the school board into a body appointed by the mayor, rather than one that was publicly elected.Ellington faculty member, interview by York. In 2010, the Mayor’s Office and members of the school board briefly considered relocating—rather than renovating—Duke Ellington School, but that plan failed after strong opposition from parents and alumni.Bill Turque, “Ellington Arts School Might Be Moved out of D.C.’s Ward 2," Washington Post, January 17, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/16/AR2010011602748.html.

Ultimately, the school board chose to renovate the campus, with Georgetown-based architecture firm LBA-CGS winning the commission with plans for new classrooms, performance spaces, and even underground parking.CGS Architects, “Modernization of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts,” https://cgsarchitects.com/assets/DESA-Brochure-2017.pdf. The renovation of the original 1898 Western High School structure was completed in 2017, after a three-year construction process that burgeoned nearly $100 million over the original $71 million budget and lagged more than a year behind schedule. The final price tag, shockingly high for an institution serving a student body of approximately 500, led a number of commentators to complain that the DC school system would have been better served by finding a new home for the Duke Ellington School.Joe Heim, “D.C.’s Vaunted High School for the Arts Reopens—$100 Million over Budget,” Washington Post, August 16, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dcs-vaunted-high-school-for-the-arts-reopens--100-million-over-budget/2017/08/16/8ab5abd2-73bc-11e7-8839-ec48ec4cae25_story.html.

Both founders were closely involved with the school until their passing. Malone, described in an interview as the “lieutenant on the ground,” continued to work at Duke Ellington School in a teaching capacity and as an artistic director until his death in 2006. Cooper Cafritz passed away in 2018. A faculty member remembers her as having always had “ears on the ground,” despite not being involved in daily operations of the school in recent decades.Ellington faculty member, interview by York.

Profile by Oliver York, 2019 Wintersession student.