That is the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington. It would probably have had even more if it did not limit tuition-payers to no more than 10 percent of its total enrollment. Many affluent suburban students yearn to attend the nationally famous campus and its classes in dance, literary media and communications, museum studies, instrumental and vocal music, theater, technical design and production, and visual arts.
Ellington does not calculate how many potential tuition-payers it rejects, but its overall admission process is very selective. School official Desepe de Vargas told me that only 190 of 610 applicants were admitted to the ninth and 10th grades last year. The upper grades don't take new students. The school had 525 students last year.
Tuition-payers seem happy to be there, no matter what their neighbors might think about attending a D.C. school. "There are pieces of me that I will cherish forever because of what Duke Ellington has helped me to become," said Arlington County resident Nia Webb, who just arrived at the University of Virginia. Her sister Naja, who is about to begin her junior year at Ellington, said the school feels like a haven. "I don't feel overlooked because teachers and students alike know my name," she said. "The teachers care about my well-being."
Their parents, Adriane and Schuyler Webb, are devoted Arlingtonians who have been recognized by the county School Board and superintendent for their leadership of the African International Parent Network. But they say no school in the Arlington system could provide what the District offered.
"Our daughters benefited by experiencing things that may not have been possible at their home school," Adriane said. "For example, Nia was sponsored by DCPS to travel to Ecuador and Galapagos Islands in the summer of her junior year, where she helped build a school for the locals. Naja was selected to be on the committee that illustrated the 2016 Christmas book for the Obama administration. As a result, she was a guest in the White House where she met the president and first lady."
Two of the other six D.C. schools with tuition-payers, School Without Walls and Banneker, are high-performing selective magnets. The remaining four are neither magnets nor high performing, but there are other reasons to pay tuition to public schools.
Parents might have moved out of the city but want to leave their child in a school where they are comfortable. The location and hours of their jobs or child-care arrangements might make the school the most convenient. The school might have a special program or team of teachers better at filling a child's special needs than any school they can find in their own district.
Districts differ on tuition fees. For high schoolers, Prince George's County charges $8,927 to $13,175, Montgomery County $16,203, and Fairfax County $11,919. Arlington County bars nonresident students.
A leading advocate for impoverished children told me that she got a job in the District many years ago and, with some reluctance, chose a home in Montgomery County. Co-workers had told her that the D.C. schools were just too awful. A few years later, one of her children fell in love with the performing arts and begged to be sent to Ellington. She agreed, with much chagrin.
Many Americans believe that school districts full of impoverished children should be avoided. But such places almost always have some great schools. It is best to take a closer look.