The students at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts say this D.C. public school is a lot like "The Giving Tree" in Shel Silverstein's story, a tree that gives up everything it has--its apples, branches, even its stump--to the little boy it loves.
That is why Ellington's senior class students carried a 12-foot live dogwood tree, decorated with crepe-paper apples, into a banquet hall at Georgetown University yesterday to thank the teachers they said had endured their delinquent term papers, assuaged their egos and nursed their sore throats and charley horses, all in the name of art.
Ellington, now 8 years old, is the District's version of the famous New York City High School for the Performing Arts, the setting for the movie "Fame." Ellington is a place where budding ballerinas, musicians, actors and singers play out their fantasies of finding fame of their own, their stage a 100-year-old school building where the roof leaks, the lockers are broken and even the student-painted murals of African scenes and famous musicians can't mask all the spots where paint is peeling and plaster has fallen from the walls.
"The thing about Ellington is that everybody there is involved in the arts. Everybody appreciates the other person's ideas," said freshman class president Lidia Comelli, who was at the banquet yesterday to play viola in the school's string ensemble.
"For example, there are a lot of kids who aren't into classical music," which the string ensemble plays, Comelli explained, "but they'll always give you a hand. If the kids didn't have each other, they wouldn't get anywhere. Each person is always giving the other an oomf."
A walk across Ellington's grassy, tree-studded campus at 35th and R streets NW or through its hallways illustrates the school's focus: Beneath the shade of a dogwood tree, two students practice a sonata on flutes. Upstairs on the second floor, a group is harmonizing on "Ebony and Ivory," the new Stevie Wonder-Paul McCartney song. In a corner, a young girl is practicing the lines of a play as she walks, book in hand, through a sunlit hallway.
The school has the look and the feel of the popular film and television series "Fame," but the students don't necessarily appreciate the comparison.
" 'Fame' makes it look easy," said senior Jyounkee Hardy, an acting major at the school. "But it's hard work. People are there until 12 or 1 o'clock in the morning."
"That's the way it was when we were rehearsing for the play 'Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope.' People stayed late like that every day and came in every day of the Easter vacation," added Robin Lindsay, another senior."
All of Ellington's 402 students had to pass an audition to be admitted. Their school day ends at 4:45 p.m., instead of the normal 3 p.m. dismissal time. Most students take nine classes a day, instead of five or six as other city high school students do. Half the day is spent on academic subjects, the other half in "studio" performing arts classes.
Not all has gone well with the school. It began amid numerous administrative problems. And enrollment has declined by nearly one-third over the last several years, although administrators say this is primarily due to their being more selective in the students they admit.
The school's 11th graders had the second-highest reading scores on standardized tests of any city high school last year, though they ranked only sixth in the city in math. They score slightly lower than the national norm in reading and are about 2 1/2 years behind in math.
Most of the performing arts teachers at the school are performers themselves. Debbie Allen, a former dance teacher at Ellington, now plays the dance teacher on the television series "Fame." In a scene that could have easily come from that show, seniors at yesterday's banquet hugged and kissed their teachers, gave them individual thank-you notes written on apple-shaped papers, and danced with them as student Tyrone Williams played "Thanks For the Memories" on the saxophone.
Like their television counterparts, many of the Ellington students dream of becoming famous performers. Senior Jamie Meredith, for example, hopes to follow in the footsteps of the late singer Minnie Ripperton and someday be able to hit as many octaves as that singer could. Meredith will go to the Philadelphia School of the Arts in September.
But many others, "once they see the dedication you have to have and how hard you have to work, change their mind. I did," said senior Kim Beverly, a theater major. She now plans a career in computer science.