In recent years, the people who created the Duke Ellington School of the Arts began to get the uneasy feeling that something was wrong with the school, generally considered one of the crown jewels in the tarnished District school system.

Was Ellington falling apart?

No. Not on any scale that usually applies to public schools. The school's building, on the fringe of upper Georgetown, needs a complete renovation, but it is considered a safe and welcoming environment.

Was it serving a limited community? No again. The student body, increasing this year to almost 600, comes from all parts of the city, with the majority from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Was it shortchanging core academic subjects for the arts? No, the overwhelming majority of graduates--90 percent--go on to college. The dropout rate is less than 1 percent.

Was Ellington a problem for the D.C. school system? No, it ranks fourth on standardized testing of all 18 high schools. Was Ellington a financial drain? No, its independent board raised more than $1 million a year to provide things that downtown couldn't afford. And, with the New Washingtonians jazz band and the Ellington Show Choir performing at meetings and suppers--even at the White House--and with student photography hanging in the Capitol, it hasn't lacked visibility or community input.

So what was the problem?

Everyone, from the founders to the faculty to the students, knew the school could be better.

"Just as it was clear to me years ago [that] we had to have a public school for the arts and we needed it to be free, we tried to come up with a paradigm that would stabilize the school and give it a platform for international recognition," says Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the co-founder of the school. The school had survived since 1974, but the goal of excellence was slippery.

Starting this week, Ellington is testing a new approach that will eventually bring in teachers from George Washington University and artists from the Kennedy Center to help push the students academically and artistically.

And the management of the school will change, too, if this year of exploration meets everyone's approval. Instead of being administered entirely by the public school system, the school will also be steered by the Kennedy Center and GW.

The truth is, the marriage of a high-flying arts program and a troubled school system has not always been a happy one. Some at the school feel the educational bureaucracy has held the school back and doesn't understand the challenges of simultaneously running a full academic and arts curriculum.

Cafritz is blunt on this score: "We have been jerked around for 25 years by the school system."

But things have changed in the city's hierarchy. Arlene Ackerman has taken over as superintendent and has shown a willingness to try new approaches, including hybrid management at the Ellington school. Mayor Anthony Williams has also signed on. The plan for reform, after years of trial and error, has been given the bureaucratic green light.

For students, the new vision promises more than the occasional photo op with a master artist, like Wynton Marsalis. For example, on a given day at the school, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling could be taking notes, listening to a student with dreams of being the next Cassandra Wilson. Far across the dance studio, Suzanne Farrell might watch a parade of long legs try for a perfect turn. An actor from the Royal National Theatre Company might critique a scene from "As You Like It," while members of the Turtle Island String Quartet might give the students in an instrumental music class pointers on listening to one another.

"The superintendent encouraged us to do it," says Stephen Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University, "and we took that as a guidepost of the system's support."

The future leadership will include a governing board of three people from the Ellington Fund, three people from the Kennedy Center, three people from George Washington, three from the school family and the school superintendent.

The transition is being aided by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius as a pro bono project of the law firm, and a team of consultants, led by Dennie Palmer Wolf, a senior researcher at Harvard University. In addition, Secretary of Education Richard Riley has assigned a staff member to provide assistance.

A key component of the partnership is the Ellington Fund, the nonprofit fund-raising arm that provides extra money for teacher salaries, counseling and academic remedial classes and scholarships. Over the years the fund has raised $25 million, and this year brought in a record $2 million. Each year the fund added $1 million to the $2.8 million budget received from downtown administration. Now the partners can receive designated funds for Ellington. Sidney Harman, a stereo industry executive who knew the composer for whom the school is named, gave the Kennedy Center $650,000 for Ellington.

Building on an Idea

To get to this juncture, Cafritz brainstormed with a wide circle of acquaintances. Approaches came from conversations with Vartan Gregorian, the former president of Brown University; Claudine Brown, a vice president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation; Peggy Ross, an activist in curriculum reform; and many others.

Two years ago, officials of the Ellington Fund suggested turning their brainchild into a charter school. Charters were being tested locally and seemed to provide the independence some at the school wanted. That didn't fly, mainly because some faculty members and parents were wary of the approach and some teachers had serious questions about job security and other protections their union covered. Also, the admissions policies of most charters, which have open enrollment and can't audition students, didn't meet the handpicked focus Ellington's people wanted.

After more fits and starts, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) suggested a hybrid, combining the resources of the university, the performing arts center and the school. "She jump-started a stalled system," says Cafritz.

The plan would keep the school within the District system. Ellington would continue to conform to normal high school standards. The school superintendent would sit on the governing board, and the school system's procedures for budget, personnel and discipline would be kept.

This aspect becomes even more important as the dream for a new building is discussed. Cafritz has talked to avant-garde architect Frank Gehry about his interest in designing a new building, but a serious capital campaign is down the road.

What Ellington needed, everyone agreed, was a savvy backup band.

"Some of the existing structures have made it hard to exploit our resources," says Derek Gordon, the Kennedy Center's vice president for education and jazz programming.

As the practical pieces come together, Mike Malone, a co-founder of the school and the director of the arts curriculum, wants the school family to learn from the bureaucratic stumbling and choking of the past, but more importantly, to regain a vision.

"When we first came, we came as a family, one vision, one unit," says Malone, who helped transfer Ellington's predecessor, the Workshops for Careers in the Arts, into the high school and was its first director 25 years ago. The competition for the best students, for the most dollars, led to some negative tensions. "Each department went into itself to survive," says Malone.

There are established agreements that will continue. The visual arts program works with the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The dance program has an alliance with the Academy of Arts in Philadelphia. The museum studies program is affiliated with some of the Smithsonian museums.

"This plan is an effort to bring it back to one vision," says Malone, who hopes the formula will become a model.

"We want to show how an integrated curriculum should work. We want to be a premier school for the arts," says Okpara H. Nosakhere, the school principal.

Behind the call for reform is a quarter-century of achievements. Graduates have done well, including opera soprano Denyce Graves, comedian David Chapelle and dancer Kevin Malone. Teachers, such as dance director Lynn Welters and jazz instructor Davey Yarborough, have won national acclaim.

In some ways the successes of the school, Cafritz says, blinded administrators in Ellington's hallways and downtown to the improvements and changes that were needed. "Starting with Julius Becton, the superintendents would say, 'Ellington is fine, Ellington is third and fourth academically of all our high schools. Why is Ellington making such a stink?' " says Cafritz.

Dan Harrison, an Ellington parent for six years and the president of the parent association, observes that the teachers have made a valiant effort in the midst of poor working conditions, late delivery of books and supplies, and other headaches such as the lack of a fully equipped science lab. When the school was cited for fire-code violations, Georgetown University did the repairs.

"Ellington has never gotten extra money for being a magnet school, like other jurisdictions. The old administrations have always treated Ellington differently in regard to needs. The custodial staff was cut down to the bone, beyond the marrow. We have performances here and you don't have people cleaning the bathrooms," says Harrison.

To start a tutoring program, Ellington administrators had to pay librarians to stay late and pay a fee to the city for the extra hours. Also, teachers who were burned out by the classroom experience couldn't be forced to retire or work elsewhere because of union protections.

"All of this gave us a sense of urgency in making this decision," says Cafritz.

Early Exchanges

Ellington students can concentrate in dance, technical theater, drama, visual arts, instrumental music, vocal music, museum studies, or literary and media arts. Their academic core includes foreign language, math, science, English and social sciences.

The day is a long one, with classes sometimes starting as early as 7:30 and ending at 4:15, and it stretches into nighttime with studio work and rehearsals. There was no study hall, and remedial and enrichment classes had to be conducted at lunch or after school. "Those will be more formal in the future," says Nosakhere.

Informal interchanges with GW have started, such as an assessment of Ellington's library by the university's chief librarian. Nina Seavey, a prize-winning documentary filmmaker at the college, has been reviewing the media and communications program. Officials at Ellington would like to use some of the university's language teachers in German and Italian, restoring instruction for the opera students that was cut years ago. When the administrative composition is finalized over the next year, more structured exchanges, such as allowing fast-track Ellington students to take freshman college courses, or having GW graduate students teach at Ellington as part of their training, might be possible.

The Kennedy Center is also aiming for more interaction. "We want to take it to another level with analysis and refinement. We want the artists engaged in skill-building activities and will try to provide that kind of time," says Gordon, who has been working with the division chairs at Ellington. The school will draw from artists who are performing at the center, as well as those who are doing unpublicized television specials and education institutes. School officials also hope that the center can arrange apprenticeships for students, particularly the technical theater majors, so they can move more quickly into the unions.

In turn, the center could use the school for rehearsal space. Debbie Allen, the award-winning choreographer and actress who was the first dance teacher at Ellington in 1974, is using its halls for rehearsal space.

But an education campaign has to be mounted with old-school bureaucrats and the reform team. "For this radical change, Dr. Ackerman has to make sure the middle management works hard to put her vision in place," says Cafritz. "If the school system flies with this, we can have a world-class institution."