The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Families accused of residency fraud re-enroll at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts protest in May in front of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education over accusations of residency fraud. From left are Jayna Brown, Jensen Villaflor, Sofia Klena, Aayanna Collier and Ceci Smith.
Students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts protest in May in front of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education over accusations of residency fraud. From left are Jayna Brown, Jensen Villaflor, Sofia Klena, Aayanna Collier and Ceci Smith. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts accused of residency fraud are being allowed to re-enroll in the acclaimed D.C. public arts academy, quelling some fears that enrollment would suddenly plummet following widespread fraud allegations.

District officials announced in May that 164 students — nearly 30 percent of the Ellington student body — were suspected of living in Maryland and Virginia while claiming to be D.C. residents, a move that the district says allowed suburbanites to attend the school free of charge.

But some families have rebuffed the allegations, insisting that they live in the District and that school officials have made a terrible, disruptive mistake.

The families can appeal, and until a decision is made in their cases, their children will be allowed to attend the school, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which conducted the investigation. But if officials decide midyear that a family has committed residency fraud, the student could be forced to leave the school.

Tia Powell Harris, Ellington’s chief executive, said 91 percent of returning and incoming students have enrolled for the upcoming academic year. She said that despite requests to D.C. Public Schools headquarters, she has not received a list of the students accused of fraud and thus does not know how many of the 164 students have re-enrolled. Some of the accused students graduated in June.

District rules require students enrolling at Ellington for the upcoming academic year to provide proof of residency. But it is not the job of the Ellington registrar to authenticate that students live where their paperwork claims, the school system said.

Although Ellington has an unusual governing structure and is overseen by an independent board of directors, it is funded by taxpayers and part of the D.C. school system.

“We’re focused on working with Ellington to ensure they improve their enrollment practices and ensure that all their practices are followed for next school year and beyond,” said Shayne Wells, a spokesman for the school system.

Laura Flegel, whose daughter is a rising senior at Ellington, said she and her wife have lived in the same Adams Morgan home for 27 years and still can’t figure out why they were accused of residency fraud.

While still in limbo in June, Flegel re-enrolled her daughter at the school. Earlier this month, Flegel said her family received notice clearing them of wrongdoing. The superintendent’s office would not say how many families had been absolved, but Flegel said she has heard she is one of just a few.

Flegel said the process to be exonerated was laborious and included sharing personal documents with the city.

“It’s been in­cred­ibly difficult and damaging to our family,” Flegel said. “I cannot possibly think what could have given rise to this.”

The superintendent’s office has not tempered its assertion of widespread fraud but has lost two court battles with parents who claimed proper procedures were not followed when they were notified of the fraud accusation and how they could appeal.

The education agency issued a third batch of notices to accused families on July 6, and said the latest letters meet city requirements. Families who seek to appeal the finding that they committed residency fraud can provide further documentation to city officials and request an administrative hearing.

The superintendent’s office “has listened to both public commentary and recent judicial recommendations and understands that families need more clarity about their particular residency cases, the process for resolution, and how they can provide additional information to [the agency],” the recently sent letter said. “We understand that previous efforts at following our formal process have been confusing and not as clear for families and the community as we would like them to be, and we regret this.”

City investigators announced in May that 164 of Ellington’s 570 students appeared to live outside the District and were 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 the investigation.

An additional 56 students were flagged for less clear-cut residency problems. The D.C. inspector general and attorney general are investigating how much Ellington administrators knew about the deceptive enrollments.

Families who admit to residency fraud can still enroll their children in the school, provided they pay out-of-state tuition for the recently concluded academic year and for the upcoming one. Tuition runs about $12,000 a year. The families could still face criminal charges.

Greg Smith, a lawyer and Ellington parent who has helped organize parents accused of residency fraud, said he still has concerns following the latest batch of notices. Smith, who was not accused of fraud, said because Ellington families and faculty have not seen a list of the 164 families, there is no way to know whether all the families received their notices.

Smith said families have told him the city has wrong addresses on file for them, so it is plausible some families still don’t know the city suspects they committed fraud.

“We continue to be worried about parents falling between the cracks and never being notified that they are being accused of residency fraud,” Smith said. “It’s a crazy process.”