By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
[email protected]

Famous graduates of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, such as Dave Chappelle, have helped the prestigious institution gain nationwide fame; however it’s the daily efforts by the hard-working students and staff that keeps the arts high school going and thriving far beyond their well-known alumni.

Duke Ellington not only trains students for a successful career in the arts, but with the determination necessary to attend and graduate from the institution, the high school prepares its pupils for a prosperous life and career.

“Ellington students make a daily commitment unlike any peers in the city, enduring a full academic load followed by a full load of arts education. The typical school day starts at 8:30 a.m. and runs until 5 p.m. And that doesn’t include extra rehearsals and practice sessions that can stretch into the early evening,” explained Duke Ellington School of the Arts CEO Tia Powell Harris. “Students really must love their art because it requires so much time and effort.”

For over 45 years, Duke Ellington School of the Arts has been training students for success, not only in the arts, but in all of life’s fields and facets. (Courtesy Photo)

From the beginning of students’ Ellington careers, they are lovingly, but firmly pushed beyond their perceived limits, and receive training that exceeds some college arts programming. 

We prepare our students by challenging them to exceed their expectations,” the CEO said.  “They learn what it takes to be a thorough professional in whatever endeavor they undertake.” 

One tool for instilling a successful mindset in all students’ is the Duke Ellington CREED, which has been emphasized in the arts and academic education since the school’s founding in 1974.  For most of the Ellington community and its many graduates over the past 46 years, CREED stands for: Commitment. Responsibility. Empowerment. Excellence. Dignity. However, according to members of Ellington staff, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the school’s late co-founder, who passed in 2018, interchanged the second “E,” in the CREED to “Empathy”- another major lesson taught at the institution.   

The obligations to the CREED, particularly in its lesson on empowerment, often lasts post graduation, when many Ellington alumni return to the school to give back. Several members of Ellington staff are graduates of the arts school.  Further, celebrated alumni tend to give back to the institution by offering workshops and special presentations such as actor Lamman Rucker, opera singer Denyse Graves and Chappelle.

There are master classes with the likes of Chappelle, Erykah Badu, Bradley Cooper, Common, and Chris Tucker,” Powell Harris said.

Further, many of Chappelle’s most recent work and achievements revolved back to Ellington. He recently donated his EMMY to the institution, brought several renowned professional artists to the school after winning the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award, and he even chose to feature his alma mater in his episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” on Netflix.

Nevertheless, it’s not just the celebrities that offer opportunities for Ellington students. Exposure comes in many ways for Ellington’s pupils, such as instruction from top notch teachers, attending shows, participating in international conferences and competitions and getting professional showcasing opportunities.  

“There are world-class productions and exhibitions that cover the range of arts and entertainment. There are renowned instructors who have reached the top of their field and an academic staff that’s second to none,” Powell Harris said. 

“We’ve been at this since 1974 and we’re still growing and improving,” the CEO added.

Ellington’s growth is beyond its Georgetown location and D.C. borders.  The success of their alumni in all industries, has further improved the institution’s reputation nationally and internationally.

“We pull students from each of the city’s eight wards and send them into every corner of the world. Actor Lamman Rucker said the inevitable presence of fellow alums on seemingly every entertainment project is a running joke in the industry. But we also celebrate those who leave us and eventually enter law, medicine, education, IT, trades and numerous other fields,” Powell Harris said.

Next week, the school will begin the process of choosing the next generation of Ellington students, with their annual auditions. 

Ellington gladly auditions incoming ninth and 10th-graders who are interested in our dual curriculum – top-notch academics and professional arts instruction – in preparation for college and careers in the arts,” Powell Harris said. “Students may audition for one or two artistic fields but will major in only one if they’re accepted: Dance, Literary Media & Communications, Museum Studies Instrumental Music, Vocal Music, Theatre, Technical Design & Production, or Visual Arts.”

For verified D.C. residents, the prestigious arts training is free of charge; however, non-residents must pay tuition to District of Columbia Schools.

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