Sherwayne Carter assumed that his senior-year schedule would be as grueling as the three before. Early morning alarms. Fifteen-hour days. Buses and trains trundling across the District to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Classes. Dancing. More dancing.
But instead of a bustling senior year preparing for college, the 17-year-old spent the first two months of the school year at home, alone, reading text messages from friends telling him what he was missing in class.
Carter was barred from returning to the acclaimed public arts school in Georgetown his senior year — one of 164 Ellington students accused in May of lying about living in the District so they could secure slots. The ensuing investigation rocked the arts school and became the city’s latest education scandal during a tumultuous year.
“Most of the time, I’m here alone,” Carter said recently from his grandmother’s Southeast Washington home. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it has actually made me respect school — when you’re here, not doing anything, concerned about your future.”
Carter’s case illustrates the consequences and complexity of the Ellington investigation, a probe that has laid bare the complicated lives of students in an urban school system.
Most of the families who said they were wrongly accused of enrollment fraud appealed the city’s findings and were allowed to remain at the school while officials investigated.
Carter’s mother, Alexis Young-Bey, said she never received notices about the fraud allegation from the school system. When she finally learned that she was suspected of fraud through an email from city officials, she said she thought she responded correctly, sending the city the proper documentation — her District driver’s license, car registration and tax filings — to prove residency.
She acknowledged that she never formally appealed the city’s findings, causing her to inadvertently concede to committing residency fraud. That stripped her son of his right to attend a D.C. public school while living with her.
For two months, the star dancer and A student had no school to attend, spending his days twirling in the kitchen to release energy and writing a senior paper he wasn’t sure he would ever submit.
Heartbroken, Young-Bey recently handed custodial rights to Carter’s grandmother — a decision that allows the teen to return to Ellington if he lives with his grandmother at her apartment in Southeast Washington. The mother hopes it will be a decision that lets the son pursue his dream of attending college and embark on a career as a professional dancer. Young-Bey said she also decided to relinquish her custodial rights because of other family circumstances.
Ellington families say Young-Bey’s decision epitomizes the extreme measures families have taken to protect their children from an investigation they decry as intrusive and unfair. A group of Ellington parents established an “I Am Ellington” campaign to provide families, including Carter’s, with free legal services amid the fraud allegations. They say they have discovered many students who they believe are wrongly ensnared in the investigation.
“When you have complicated allegations brought against families that are not used to dealing with complicated legal issues, a lot of them just don’t know how to defend themselves,” said Greg Smith, an Ellington parent and lawyer who has been helping Young-Bey with her case. “The power of the full government coming after them is scary.”
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education — the agency conducting the investigation — would not comment on Carter’s case, but spokesman Fred Lewis said in a statement that the office is working closely with families to ensure a fair investigation.
“While we cannot comment on any specific student’s case, we are confident that we are providing families as much support and information as possible,” Lewis said.
Young-Bey, an assistant manager at Walmart, said she and her son have lived with various family members over the years, but insists they have always resided in the District. Carter has attended a D.C. traditional public or charter school since kindergarten. Young-Bey has a younger son who attends a public charter middle school and has not been accused of residency fraud.
“This is his career, these are his goals,” Young-Bey said. “It’s an all-time-high stress level, because you want the best for your kid and you’ll do anything for it.”
Young-Bey’s battles with the city are far from over. She filed a complaint with the D.C. government, requesting that the city reopen her case so she can appeal it. Despite Carter’s return to Ellington, Young-Bey still faces more than $12,000 in fines and tuition payments for sending her son to a D.C. public school while the city thinks she was not a resident.
Young-Bey said she is unsure why she was accused of residency fraud. Records shared with The Washington Post indicate that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education alleges that Young-Bey and Carter hold Maryland driver’s licenses. Young-Bey said she has a District license, and produced a copy that appears in city filings. Her son says he does not have a license or identification card from any jurisdiction.
City investigators asserted that Carter had been living with his mother’s fiance in Maryland — an assertion Young-Bey denies.
“We work hard to keep our kids in school and keep them on their career paths,” Young-Bey said. “And for us to be stripped of that, it’s hard.”
At Ellington, Carter’s absence was a loss for the dance department. Charles Augins, the program’s chair, described Carter as a standout dancer with stellar technical ability and energy. Each year, Augins took his students to a conference for black dancers in different cities. And each year, Carter would leave with a pile of scholarships to participate in summer dance programs.
Carter has spent his high school summers studying with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago.
“He is a prized student,” Augins said. “This was devastating to him, and heartbreaking to us as teachers.”
Carter said he was ready to return to school — and he did, on Thursday. Ready for the alarm clock to sound, ready to train for college auditions. And he said his friends are ready to have him back. Carter said they visited his District home over the years and are perplexed by the residency issue.
“They think it’s crazy because they know where I live,” Carter said. “They didn’t know this would take this long.”