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Duke Ellington School of the Arts Attracts Celebrities

Norma Porter | 3/3/2010, 10:49 p.m.

Fundraiser Yields $500,000 to Ensure Arts Program Continues

District budget cuts have slashed school resources dramatically, but that isn€t stopping one Northwest high school from taking a creative approach in raising funds to protect the only pre-professional arts program in the city.

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public high school with a fundraising arm --The Ellington Fund -- held an afternoon press conference with popular performing artists Chrisette Michele and Chuck D, Thu., Feb. 25 at the Ellington Theatre, followed by a benefit concert at the Kennedy Center in Northwest that evening that featured Stevie Wonder, to raise money for the school€s scholastic and artistic programs. The concert enabled Ellington to raise $500,000.

€It is no surprise that arts funding has been decimated in the public school system,€ said Ellington principal Rory Pullens.

€There are many schools that are without art instructors and many school districts [that] do not have a progression of arts education. But here at Duke Ellington, we recognize the importance of arts and academic education and we believe that it is paramount for us to take the initiative and the lead in bringing the resources to support the young people here.€

Budget cuts, imposed by the city government in 2009, reduced the school€s personnel and programming dollars and placed the school€s 36-year program in jeopardy. To avoid the loss of essential positions and course offerings, faculty and staff agreed to forgo one day of pay per month.

But Pullens sought a long-term solution to sustain the school that has produced artists such as comedian Dave Chappelle and mezzo soprano Denyce Graves through a partnership with songwriter-turned-community-developer Kenneth Gamble.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Universal Institute Charter School in Philadelphia, Pa., a school that falls under Gamble€s Universal Companies, a community development organization, established a partnership to raise money for both schools.

With local and national high school graduation rates close to 50 percent, Gamble and Pullens both agreed that arts education is a tool that can be used to motivate young people in urban areas.

€You don€t find students in performing arts in gangs and violence. Performing arts raises the higher nature of a person,€ Gamble said.

€I€d much rather see a young person with a trumpet or guitar than an Oozy [machine gun].€

Pullens noted that while the District has a graduation rate of only 52 percent, 98 percent of Duke Ellington students graduate on time and 95 percent of them are accepted to colleges and universities.

In addition to the Gamble partnership, Pullens decided to reach out to some of the most popular artists in the entertainment industry. He asked them to throw their celebrity behind Ellington.

Chuck D, founding member of the legendary Hip Hop group Public Enemy, said he was happy to support the school.

€This school is the wonder of the educational world; this should be a national prototype,€ he said

Michele expressed the importance of music and arts programs in schools through a personal experience.

€I grew up in Long Island, New York and the school I went to had a music program. I had ADHD and waking up at 6:45 a.m., was like pulling my teeth out. When I was in class, I had to shake and move or go get a drink of water,€ she said.

€Music was my reason for waking up, getting dressed, getting through math, English, science and social studies classes. If there was no music in school, I wouldn€t have finished school.€

Wonder, who donated $500,000 worth of recording equipment and his personal piano to the arts school, said that he agreed to perform at the benefit concert because he has witnessed the faculty€s commitment to the students and the students€ passion for the arts during previous visits to the school.

€It is important for me to help secure the future of this school, which may help produce the next Stevie Wonders of the world,€ he said.