AUDITION DAY at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts is like no other. The air is filled with electric anticipation -- and most of the students have a severe case of jitters.

This year about 400 students will have auditioned in two different time periods (March and May) for 250 slots in the city's only arts high school, one of only a half-dozen such schools in the United States.

Sometimes the competition is not just between students but among stage mothers. Some teachers still recall the mother who brought her 250-pound daughter to a dance try-out and was insulted to learn that her child was overweight. The daughter returned the next year several pounds lighter and tried again.

Students and parents endure the audition agonies because they know that the grueling sunup-to-sundown Ellington school day helps pave the way to college scholarships and sometimes to immediate jobs in the arts. Of the 93 students who graduated in 1979, 36 received scholarships or monetary awards. 9Students have gone to schools like Juilliard, Oberlin, New York University, Pratt Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology. In the school's six-year history, 90 percent of its graduates have entered college. Some have appeared in "All That Jazz," "Bubblin' Brown Sugar," "The Wiz" and "Dancin'."

It's an experience that's impossible to forget. Rhett Lucas, a 1979 graduate now attending Oberlin on scholarship, says, "Oberlin is a fantastic school. But right now I'm at a standstill. Things were happening so fast at Ellington that I'm getting a good rest now. tBut I feel uncomfortable. I need to perform."

But despite its successes, the school's turbulent six-year history has been marked by constant financial woes. And students still go begging for dancing shoes, musical instruments and enough teachers.

In an effort to help, Lena Horne is performing a benefit concert tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center. The event is being sponsored by Workshops for Careers in the Arts (WCA), the arts education organization that founded the school and remains as its primary fund-raiser for supplies and equipment.

Ellington has attracted nationwide attention as the most ambitious and comprehensive arts high school in the country under public auspices. Unlike comparable schools in New York and North Carolina, it places equal emphasis on the arts and academic studies, and appeals to a broad swath of social classes, mostly black and inner-city students.

The school day for the 411 Ellington students is more rigorous than in the other District public schools: 8:30 to 4:30 p.m., with no "free" or study periods other than lunch. The day is divided into two halves -- mornings for academic courses and afternoons for lessons and courses in the arts division. In addition, there are frequently evening rehearsals that, along with transportation time, stretch days from dawn to late night.

Not surprisingly, Ellington's financial needs are greater than -- and different from -- those of a regular academic school. Under the city budget, Ellington will receive $1.1 million in fiscal year 1980. However, $972,752 of that will go for 35 staff salaries. In contrast, Ballou High School, which has a science-math program, will receive $3.1 million in fiscal 1980. Of that total, $2.6 million is earmarked for 134 staff salaries and $86,362 for supplies and equipment. The school has 175 staff positions and 2,500 students.

But at Ellington, money for equipment, supplies, concerts, exhibits and stage productions must come from outside sources. Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are needed just for paint and canvas for art classes, shoes for dance, instruments for band and sets for theater. WCA contributes about $100,000 to the school annually. But WCA is finding its regular financial resources -- foundations and private contributions -- drying up.

Hence the benefit concert, proceeds from which will go toward meeting a National Endowment for the Arts challenge grant of $250,000, which must be matched on a three-to-one basis in a three-year period. Even if the event is a complete success (tickets range from $25 to $250 each), the WCA must look ahead to more money-raising ventures to meet its goal.

The school evolved from WCA, founded in 1968 as a nonprofit arts education organization by Peggy Cooper, then a law student, and dance teacher Mike Malone. The program grew from a first year of summer classes to a five-day, four-hour apprenticeship attended by students from all over the city. fUnder WCA lobbying, the school board chartered Ellington in June 1974, in the old Western High School at 35th and R Streets NW in Georgetown.

A half-dozen years later, an older and wiser Cooper, now chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, ponders the school's problems and agrees that the frequent turnover of directors has hurt student and parent morale. But the problem is complex, she says.

"I thought it would be all right if Workshops got its foot in the door," she said with an ironic smile. "But the top-level people didn't know what they were doing. The school board didn't realize an arts high school would cost more than a regular school. The commitment to give substance to the fanfare was not there."

In the beginning, there were two separate programs, arts and academic, with different staffs and directors. Western High School was still a formal entity and WCA had set up operation in the building. Malone, now director of theater at Karamu House in Cleveland, was the first artistic director.

Cooper recalls: "The original plan was to phase in Ellington and phase out Western. The academic school was to evolve into an arts high school with academic courses. But there was always fighting. Mike had trouble getting secretaries on staff to type letters. We had to pay for a secretary for the arts school."

The opposing factions broke into open warfare in 1976 over whether three pieces of nude sculpture should be on display at the school. The sculptures, three statues of Egyptian gods, were created for a school art exhibit by Ed Love, then a teacher at Western and Howard University. D.C. School Regional Superintendent Dorothy Johnson ordered them removed. Malone refused to comply and was supported by a group of faculty and parents. After two weeks of negotiation, Malone was named director of both the academic and artistic wings of the school. But six months later, Malone was told that his contract would not be renewed because he had not complied with directives from the D.C. school superintendent's office. The school was removed from Johnson's command and placed under supervision of the Career Development Center.

After Malone left in 1976, the school went through two interim directors before Israel Hicks was hired in 1977. His one-year stay was a can of worms. D.C. School Superintendent Vincent Reed says that Hicks (who now has just finished directing a production of "Sizwe Banze Is Dead" with the Virginia Stage Co. in Norfolk) caused problems by grossly overspending his budget. Hicks overspent mainly for part-time teachers to upgrade the quality of the arts curriculum. He also provoked some enmity in a dispute over whether he had misrepresented his credentials to the search committee which selected him. Hicks finally resigned by dictating a letter from California, accusing Reed of watering down the school program.

Hicks says now that as soon as he left Ellington, "I forgot it. I think the people of Washington like the idea of having a school of the arts but they don't want to support it. They wanted a principal, not an artistic director. They wanted someone to maintain order. They took away special classes, individual coaching. We were fighting daily for things for the kids to paint on."

Cooper calls the experience with Hicks "devastating": "We had built up such faith. There's been negative fallout. Teacher morale declined. The curriculum suffered."

Following Hicks' deparature in September 1978, Phyllis Beckwith became interim director, taking leave as director of the Career Development Center. iBeckwith says that she found the school "in a mess." In addition to the budget problems, some teachers were leaving work before the school day was over, she says. One of her favorite tactics -- after spotting a departing teacher from her office window -- was to page the person on the p.a. system. She also would stand by the sign-in sheet every morning and note late teachers by drawing large red circles next to their names.

Beckwith's stand-in role was followed in January 1979, by Maurice G. Eldridge, the present director, who came to Ellington after being assistant headmaster of the now-defunct Windsor Mountain Prep School in Lenox, Mass., and working in vocational education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Most observers are pleased with Eldridge's calming effect on the school. His quiet demeanor translates into amicable relations all around. "Ellington was viewed as an outside beast," he says, "with no connection to the system. It takes a long time to turn the problem around. Even now people think we're strange."

Eldridge, says Cooper, doesn't have an arts background but is eminently capable, bright and open. Of all the directors, Malone stands out as the only one who had a stong arts philosophy -- and students remember him fondly for that.

Gabrielle Smith, 18, a 1979 Ellington graduate now studying drama at Howard, says, "The atmosphere under Mike Malone was fabulous. But the atmosphere changed as directors changed. We felt a lot of uncertainty and talked about it all the time."

On the other hand, some doubted Malone's administrative abilities. School board member Barbara Lett-Simmons said, "What Mike probably wouldn't admit is that he needed an administrator."

Not all the school's problems have involved administration.Ann Chin, former president of the Ellington Home-School Association, says the school sorely misses a community spirit because students come from all over the city, many times transferring to several buses and/or subway lines. "We had a lot of trouble organizing parents," she explains. "If Ellington had been a community school, we would've been more successful in raising money."

For all six years of its existence, the school has hobbled along in a dilapidated physical plant at which other high school students might laugh. The building was constructed in 1898 and no additions have been made since 1925. Plaster is falling, parts of the roof leak and floors are buckling. The school system asked the city government for $7 million to renovate Ellington. The city budget office asked Congress for $4 million, and the appropriation was made. But no work has started -- and probably will not get under way until the spring of 1981 because of a long committee selection process (not yet begun) to choose an architect and approve a plan.

What's ahead for Ellington? More money problems for sure.

Eldridge says he hopes to install more workshops and master classes. He also wants to employ more professional artists as teachers. "But that's going to take money," he says with a smile. "we couldn't exist without Workships raising money. Community support has to improve. And I'll know more about the community climate after this Lena Horne concert is over."

Cooper also says money is going to be the crucial factor in the immediate future. But she's not optimistic. "Our peaking fund-raising year was 1973," she says sadly. "We're really hard up. The local foundations have given us money. But they've told us that we've worn out our welcome. So we're trying something different with this benefit."