Ellington arts school staying put for now, Rhee says

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, moving Thursday to quell a storm of protest, said that the District has no immediate plans to move the Duke Ellington School of the Arts out of Georgetown but that it hopes to eventually build a new facility to replace the school's century-old home.

"Ellington will stay in Georgetown for the foreseeable future," said Rhee, who is scheduled to meet with members of the school's governing board Friday.

Rhee has been inundated with calls and e-mails from the school community since The Washington Post reported Sunday that the District had studied the cost of moving Ellington to the former Logan Elementary School building on G Street NE, near Union Station.

News of the possible relocation of Ellington, which draws its 85 percent African American enrollment from across the city for renowned music, dance, visual arts and theater programs, touched nerves still raw from the recent debate over Hardy Middle School, just two blocks to the north. Rhee triggered criticism last month when she announced the future replacement of Hardy Principal Patrick Pope, who oversees an art and music program that also draws a primarily African American student body. Looking to market the school more effectively to neighborhood families, Rhee announced that the principal of Georgetown's Hyde-Addison Elementary will run both schools next year. Many Hardy parents accused Rhee of trying to squeeze black students out of the newly remodeled Hardy, which she denied.

Ellington school leaders said word of the relocation study took them by surprise. Michaele C. Christian, president of the school's governing board, told Rhee in a letter Wednesday that she was "appalled" by the possible move, which had been considered without consulting the school community. She called the Logan site "woefully inadequate" and said the move "would eviscerate one of the most outstanding educational institutions in the District."

"Once again," Christian wrote, "we find ourselves distracted from the task at hand, creating the highest quality education that we can provide to our students, by politics and innuendo."

Rory Pullens, the head of Ellington, told parents in an e-mail Wednesday that any attempt to relocate the school will be fought. "We, as an institution, will not idly stand by while such plans are taking place and not have our voices heard!"

After speaking with Rhee on Thursday, however, Christian's tone moderated. "My understanding is there have been preliminary discussions about Ellington's needs, which are significant. And they were exploring various options for addressing those facilities' needs. I look forward to an opportunity sit down with the chancellor to address any residual concerns to put this all to rest."

Rhee declined to comment on The Post's report, based on a source knowledgeable with the internal discussions, that school construction czar Allen Y. Lew had been asked to develop a scenario for moving Ellington to Logan. She also declined to respond to D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who said in the same article that he supported the idea of moving Ellington to a more central location and opening a traditional neighborhood high school at the Georgetown site.

Rhee said the long-term solution for Ellington remains a new building, something the District can't afford right now. Anacostia, Wilson, Woodson and Eastern high schools are all undergoing complete reconstructions or major renovations over the next two years.

School officials say the cost of a new building, complete with a theater, dance and recording studios and numerous other arts-related needs, would be between $75 million and $85 million.

"I'm very clear that what the school needs is a great state-of-the-art facility," Rhee said. "If and when it becomes possible to do that funding-wise, we will fully engage with the Ellington community to make sure that where it's done and how it's done pleases the vast majority."

Addressing the controversy in an interview Thursday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was somewhat more open-ended than Rhee in his comments. He said it was "too early" to say whether -- or how long -- Ellington would stay in Georgetown. Asked if he could guarantee parents that the school, which is scheduled to be renovated in 2012, would remain in Georgetown beyond that year, Fenty said: "No, in fact, the opposite. We're exploring all options for all of our schools."

But Rhee said there was no daylight between herself and the mayor on the issue. "We're always looking for the best options for all of our facilities."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company