Parents with children at Duke Ellington School of the Arts lashed out at city officials who discovered that 160 students from outside the District fraudulently enrolled in the school and accused leaders of acting without regard for the potential damage done to teenagers.
The anger of families was evident Tuesday at a parent association meeting in the school’s cafeteria, with vows to fight to salvage the reputation of the celebrated school.
It marked the first time parents and the school’s administrators spoke publicly about the crisis that convulsed a school that has produced high-profile talent, including comedian Dave Chappelle and actress Samira Wiley.
The school had been unfairly targeted, families said. They questioned the validity of the investigation’s findings. And they said investigators betrayed a lack of understanding of students’ complex family lives, with teens sometimes being raised by parents and grandparents who live in several jurisdictions.
“We need to push back on this and we need to push back hard,” said Greg Smith, a Capitol Hill resident and father of a junior at Ellington not implicated in the investigation. “We are being scapegoated.”
City investigators found that 164 of Ellington’s 570 students lived outside the District and improperly enrolled in the school. Those cases were forwarded to the D.C. attorney general’s office, which enforces laws against school residency fraud. Some of the families submitted “falsified or inauthentic documents” to prove residency, according to a report on the investigation.
Another 56 students have been flagged for less clear-cut residency problems and were given a week and a half to prove they live in the city. The D.C. inspector general and attorney general are investigating how much Ellington administrators knew about the deceptive enrollments.
Principal Sandi Logan said in an interview after the Tuesday meeting that she believes the findings of the investigation were overblown and that many of the families who were implicated live in the District.
“I’m confident based on what I’m hearing that most of the families will be able to provide the documents to prove their residency,” Logan said.
Still, she said, the school is working on plans in case a large number of students are unable to return next school year, although she would not elaborate on the preparations.
Rob Marus, a spokesman for the attorney general, said his office independently evaluates the evidence referred to it, and will move forward only with cases that have merit.
Parents who live outside the District can send their children to the city’s public schools as long as they don’t displace D.C. residents and pay annual tuition of roughly $12,000. There are 46 such students who legally attend Ellington.
The guardians of two Ellington students said at Tuesday’s meeting that they live in the District and are unsure why they received notices that they were suspected of enrollment fraud and that their cases had been referred to the attorney general.
One of the guardians, Lucinda Woodland, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast Washington, said she has had legal custody of her granddaughter since she was a baby. Her granddaughter, an Ellington sophomore, has always attended D.C. schools, and Woodland said she was stunned to be accused of residency fraud. She said her daughter’s biological mother, who lives in Maryland, is listed as one of the teen’s emergency contacts, and she suspects that may be why the family was implicated.
Stanley Pope, who has a junior at the school, said he has lived in the District with his son for nearly the son’s entire life. Pope recently lost his job and said he and his son live with a friend near the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Northeast.
“I don’t understand why I got a letter,” Pope said. “It’s crazy. Do you see any end to this?”
None of the parents at the meeting acknowledged committing residency fraud. Two parents said they don’t live in the District but pay tuition, and one said she had to call the Office of the State Superintendent six times to make her tuition payment.
Established in 1974 with a mission of providing a free, first-class arts education to children in the nation’s capital, the school has a competitive admissions process.
Although the school is funded by taxpayers, it is overseen by an independent board of directors.
Some parents accused the city of targeting Ellington because the student body is predominantly black — 77 percent — and they said they believe wealthy residents of Georgetown don’t want the school as a neighbor. They also said that if problems existed with residency status, they should have been discovered sooner so that students wouldn’t be displaced in the middle of their high school years.
Savannah Overton, admissions director at Ellington, said 10 percent of the student body is allowed to live outside of the District as long as they pay tuition.
When asked whether arts education in the District’s schools is sufficiently robust in the early years to produce enough candidates for Ellington, Overton and Logan acknowledged that some elementary and middle schools do a better job than others preparing students in the arts. But they said Ellington’s mission is to serve D.C. students.
But, Logan wondered, what would happen to D.C. residents who can’t sufficiently prove their residency to the attorney general?
“If they’re residents and they’re told they can’t come back,” Logan asked, “where will they go?”