Ellington School Ribbon-Cutting Is Aug. 19

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Putting the finishing touches on the renovated Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Photo by Robert Devaney.

After many delays — and cost overruns that almost tripled the budget — the renovated Duke Ellington School of the Arts on 35th Street NW between Reservoir Road and R Street will officially open this Saturday, Aug. 19, at 11 a.m. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson will cut the ribbon at a public ceremony in the auditorium of the Classical Revival-style main building, which looks to have been spectacularly restored.

Originally completed in 1898, the building was designed to be Western High School, one of the District’s first buildings specifically dedicated to public education at the high school level. By 2000, Western High School had moved to larger facilities and the 35th Street building had evolved into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP), supported by DC Public Schools, the Ellington Fund, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and George Washington University. It is the only high school in the District of Columbia that combines a full college-preparatory curriculum with intensive pre-professional arts training.

The dual curriculum was established in 1974. According to the school’s history, “By naming one of his jazz bands The Washingtonians, Duke Ellington made his home part of his persona. D.C. philanthropist and avid art collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz and the late dancer and choreographer Mike Malone returned the favor over the years, building the school to house the creative soul of the District, and to reflect the rich cultural diversity of the United States. From the beginning, public and private partnerships have supported the school.”

The mission of the school became to nurture and inspire passion for arts and learning in talented students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to develop their artistic skills. “We ensure that our students are prepared for post-secondary education and/or careers in the arts by offering an intensive arts-based program,” the mission statement declares. “We prepare our students to become productive citizens in our global society through our strong focus on community service.”

The renovations were initially estimated to cost $71 million, but over a period of three years the price tag grew to more than $178 million. In June of 2016, the Office of the DC Auditor reported that the Department of General Services had made significant errors in planning the renovations, such as missing deadlines, underestimating costs and failing to consider cheaper locations. Staying in the same location meant totally renovating a building that was not designed for the arts, a more expensive effort than building a new facility with that focus in mind.

In addition to being over budget, the project was also significantly delayed. DGS missed several deadlines in approving building plans and selecting architects, causing the project to begin years later than had been scheduled, according to Catherine Dunn’s Tipsheet blog. Though the work was scheduled to start June 15, 2013, actual construction did not begin until April of 2015.

But now the renovated facility, serving as a magnet school for the performing arts, is ready for a projected 10-percent growth. The final days for the coming year’s registration are Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 21 and 22. Student orientation will take place the rest of that week.

This fall, there will have a grand reopening ceremony. But “everyone is welcome to come on Saturday to the ribbon cutting. It will be the place to be,” said Richard Livingstone, the mayor’s spokesperson for Ward 2.

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