Visiting the Duke Ellington School of the Arts recently, I had the urge to go back to high school. But that wouldn't help the school much. What the school needs is money.
This is the beginning of what Ellington students call "Spring Spirit Week," a time for rebirth at the school that will be kicked off with a Duke Ellington birthday celebration (he would have been 86 on Monday), a school fundraiser and a special luncheon menu featuring Southern fried chicken, candied yams and early June green peas.
They feed those kids good over at the Ellington School, and the sight of strong bodies flexing on balance beams and arching on pointed toes is inspirational, indeed. (Have you pulled out that checkbook yet?)
Listen in on a class.
"Is it necessary for blacks to use the Afro-American theme in their art?" asked Margaret Paris, a visual arts teacher, after her class returned from a field trip to the University of Maryland's art department.
"Not at all," said Jerold McCain, 17, the student council president and one of the school's top artists. He is black. "A white man, say in his fifties, is not going to buy a black protest painting and be reminded of his guilt. You have to think about it economically."
Another classmate disagreed, saying black culture should be perpetuated regardless of who would or would not buy the work. "You should have gone to business school, Jerold," he cracked.
The debate moved around the classroom in ripples of thought, splashing the room with colorful expression. It was this mix of study -- economics, history and philosophy -- relevantly applied to their art work, that had students tuned in and turned on.
The building itself, located at 3500 R St. NW, was undergoing renovation that would add a new theater, a gallery, art and dance studios and an expanded library. Students worked outside, reciting Shakespeare under shade trees while others trooped around with sketch pads and charcoal.
Now here's a school that has had its ups and downs, and it wasn't until the appearance of the movie and television show, "Fame," that the city began to take the concept of this 11-year-old school for the performing arts seriously. Of course, the fact that several Ellington graduates have hit the big time with the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe and the Dance Theatre of Harlem helped.
But as Maurice Eldridge, the school principal, noted, "There are still large segments of the community that don't recognize the importance of the arts, although we are pleased that our support continues to grow."
Indeed, the city is becoming more sophisticated about the arts, thanks in part to support offered by places like the Kennedy Center and the Folger Theater, Howard and George Washington universities and groups such as the Ford, Cafritz and Hattie Strong foundations.
Still, more community support is needed. Ellington is two schools in one, although it is treated by the D.C. school system as any other high school, meaning it gets no more or less money than the others. Yet it simply takes more money to run a top flight arts school, and the rewards are clearly worth it.
All you have to do is visit the school sometime, try to catch a glimpse of say, Patrick Blackwell, the 16-year-old bass baritone from Northeast Washington, practicing his rendition of the 17th Century Italian classic, "Per la gloria d' adorarvi."
Or better yet, attend a reception celebrating the life and times of the school's namesake, Duke Ellington, who was born and raised in Washington. The Ellington Jazz and Percussion ensembles will perform along with John Malachi and Debra Tidwell. It starts at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Ukrainian National Catholic Shrine, 4250 Harewood Rd. NE. It will cost $15, with the tax deductible proceeds going to the school.
Already, there is much about the Ellington school that can surely be applied to other high schools in the area. But Ellington simply won't thrive without that spring spirit of giving required for such a unique institutions.