Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Chancellor: DCPS Plans to Assume Full Operation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts

I-Team report raised questions about school's unique relationship with the district

NBC Universal, Inc.

Major changes are in the works to improve oversight at one of Washington, D.C.'s most acclaimed schools.

D.C. Public Schools says it plans to assume full operation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts and is in discussions for what that transition would look like. No timeline was provided for the changes.

Last month, the News4 I-Team raised questions about how the school's unique relationship with the school district may have contributed to lapses in teacher sex abuse investigations.

The series of stories in January prompted D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto and Ward 2 State Board of Education member Allister Chang to draft a letter calling for increased oversight and better recordkeeping.

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee responded with a letter of his own, saying, "DCPS plans to assume full operation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts." He added that the school district is "currently in discussions" with the school to "create a plan for a smooth transition."

Ferebee said in the letter that the non-profit Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project board of directors would no longer govern the school. That would drastically alter the current operating structure that's been in effect for more than 20 years.

Ferebee added that the DESAP board and the school district are "engaged in discussions to determine the role of the board going forward" and that while the board "will provide support to the school in a different capacity, it will no longer govern the school."

Both parties have spent the past several months negotiating a new deal to replace the current arrangement, under which DCPS has little control over school operations.

School leaders told the News4 I-Team they welcome changes like creating a pathway for their academic teachers to become licensed and for all of the DESA teachers and staff to become DCPS employees. Those efforts were already underway in an effort to increase employee pay to be in line with the rest of the district's schools. By making all of the school's employees DCPS employees, the District would also assume control of their personnel files and other records.

Those changes would help alleviate some of the problems exposed by the I-Team investigation, which found the school was notified twice about allegations of the same writing teacher having sexual relationships with two different students over the course of a decade.

The school alerted DCPS both times, but while the I-Team found evidence the district did investigate him twice, it said it had no record of ever investigating that teacher. The district maintained no personnel file for him because he was an employee of the school, not the school district.

The I-Team found the school also reported both allegations to D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, but it's unclear how much investigating was done. That teacher was never charged and resigned in 2019 during the second investigation.  MPD has now assigned a new detective to re-examine both cases.

On Jan. 31, a week after the first I-Team report, DCPS sent a written proposal to the D.C. Council, which included significant changes to its relationship with the school, including DCPS being able to select and evaluate the school's principal, a function currently held by the DESAP board. The presentation did not mention full control of the school being assumed by DCPS at that time.

When asked about the contents of Ferebee's letter, a current member of the DESAP board told the I-Team board members were shocked, because none of the provisions had been agreed to or finalized as of yet. The board member said negotiations are still ongoing, and that maintaining the special arts curriculum that has brought the school national acclaim is the top priority.

When asked about Ferebee's letter, a  DCPS spokesperson sent the I-Team a statement Tuesday saying, "The Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP) is a valued DCPS partner. The district is currently in discussions with DESAP to transition full operations of the performing arts school to DCPS. As part of this process, DCPS will ensure that school policies, procedures, record keeping, and training practices align with those of all other DCPS schools and promote a safe and welcoming school community. More information about this transition will be shared as discussions continue and a timeline is set.”

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