School of the Week: Duke Ellington Conservatory of Music and Art at Beckham

Integrating Fine Arts into African-American History through music, dance and visual art

If you need a dose of energy on any given Friday, walk into the auditorium at Duke Ellington Conservatory of Music and Art at Beckham on the city’s east side.

During a recent visit to Duke Ellington, a PreK-8 school with nearly 800 students, the middle school dance class was engaged in a Masters Class presented by Joey Lorraine of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Lorraine is a teaching artist for a program titled, “Dancing through Barriers.”

Integrating the dance Masters Class into Black History Month, Lorraine said the custom-made residency—created and funded by the Dance Department at the Detroit Opera House—taught DPS students how to elegantly move their limbs through dance to share stories of the Harlem Renaissance era, Civil Rights, art, culture and politics in African-American History.

The group presented a choreographed piece titled, “Returned,” and performed moves to hits from the Detroit Motown music era. Each and every week, Duke Ellington students enjoy a Masters Class in music, vocal music, visual arts or dance.

“When you’re on that stage, something takes over…the students here at Duke Ellington showcased a level of pride that is so great to see in young dancers,” she said. “They picked up the moves very quickly.”

Through the district’s new five-year Strategic Plan, DPS has made a pledge to bring more arts and music to all elementary and middle schools, a move that Lorraine applauds.

“Dance teaches you so many things. It teaches self-expression; it helps to boost the confidence level,” Lorraine added. “Dance integrates history and culture so that students can have a full holistic experience regardless if they want to dance professionally or not.”

Lorraine noted some of the general curriculum connections that can be tied to music and dance, including:

  • Mathematics: Counting music notes and dance steps
  • Geometry: Measuring points, lines and angles of choreographed dance moves
  • Physics: Velocity to determine how fast and in what direction a dancer should move in; momentum to determine heavy, slow movements or light, fast movements; gravitational pull and symmetry
  • Foreign Language: Many music and dance terms are based on the French language

‘A True Conservatory of Music and Art’
With a background in media and performing arts, Principal Rita Davis is familiar with the advantages of integrating music and art into general curriculum instruction.

Davis was selected in the fall of 2012 to lead Duke Ellington after the former William J. Beckham Academy and Ellington programs were combined into one building. All Beckham students were grandfathered into the Duke Ellington program. New students—outside of the neighborhood boundaries—must complete an application.

Download the Ellington at Beckham Application

Davis, who affectionately calls Duke Ellington “A True Conservatory of Music and Art,” said students from Inkster, Southfield and other communities frequently submit applications.

Students begin arts and music instruction as early as kindergarten. Starting in third and fourth grades, students begin auditioning for areas where they have an interest. But that doesn’t mean the Pre-K students are left out. They get to sit front and center each week to enjoy the Master Classes.

“I can recall a kindergartener running up to me after one of the ballet performances,” Davis said. “She said to me, ‘You know, I can do that stuff,’ and proceeded to do a perfect pirouette.”

Traditional curriculum offerings in mathematics, science, English and social studies are enhanced with instruction in instrumental music, vocal music, visual arts and dance.

Students also enjoy a technology-rich learning environment that includes MacBooks, Whiteboards, take-home Netbooks for all students in grades six through eight and access to Netbooks at all grade levels, audio and visual broadcast equipment and more.

Named in honor of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, one of the most influential figures in jazz and American music, Ellington at Beckham also has a strong tie to jazz music instruction. Student performers have been asked to open for the Detroit Jazz Festival; were featured in multiple radio and television productions; and performed at premier events throughout the city and state.

“When you walk through the doors here, you see the pride and energy showcased by our students,” she said. “Arts instruction adds to that energy. We need more enrichment in the arts district-wide to give students a well-rounded experience.”

Scholastic and Artistic
Equally important to arts instruction is core academic rigor. According to Principal Davis, the honor roll is growing to represent nearly half of all students in grades third through eighth, and many students are competing to join the Principal’s 4.0 Club.

“We have a stellar, well-rounded academic program to ensure our students make a productive scholastic and artistic contribution to the world,” Davis said.

Duke Ellington also boasts an active PACSA (Parent Advisory Council on Student Achievement) organization, which aids teachers daily through volunteerism and a Customer Service Pledge that includes ensuring every guest who enters the school is greeted with the “Duke Ellington Wave.”

“The Duke Ellington Wave is one of royalty,” Davis said, as she demonstrated the Queen Elizabeth-esque hand motion. “Our students are trained to view themselves as the Dukes and Duchesses of Ellington. We hold our namesake to a very high standard, and we treat our guests as such.”

In Art Teacher Larry Lambert’s class, students are creating drawings of historic African Americans, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, even before drawing King’s silhouette, the students were required to research his background to integrate elements of history into the finished product.

“Each time you create art work, you have to do research to truly capture the image and describe the motivation behind your work,” Lambert said.

After researching Dr. King’s past, some students decided to use black and gold in their painting as a nod to his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, which led to a full class discussion on the rich history of fraternities and sororities at historic black colleges and universities.

“Art really helps students to grow academically and creatively,” Lambert said. “It helps them to view all subject matters differently and just adds to the overall development of the whole child.”

Roniesha Spencer, an eighth-grader at Duke Ellington, is one student who benefits from each program offering at her school. A member of the Duke Ellington dance class who attended the Dance Theatre of Harlem Masters Class, Spencer also enjoys creating visual art pieces. But her favorite subjects are Math and Science.

“I get a lot of opportunities by being a student here,” Spencer said. “I really get to experience just about everything.”

Spencer also boasts a perfect 4.0 grade point average. She plans to attend Cass Technical High School in the fall of 2014 and study dance at Michigan State University to someday travel the world as a professional dancer in London.

Student Accomplishments:
2008 Curtis Granderson Music, Essay & Art Contest; 2009 President’s Inaugural Essay Contest; 2009-2010 Thanksgiving Day Parade Float Design; 2012-2013 Michigan School Vocal Music Association (MSVA) Competition, 1st Place; 2012-2013 Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association (MSBOA) Competition, 1st Place; 2013 Essay/Oratorical Contest, 1st Place; 2012-2013 DPS Anti-Bullying Campaign Poster Contest, 1st and 3rd place; Students’ Visual Arts featured at the Detroit Institute of Arts; 2013 DPS Top Readers Competition, 1st place.

More offerings at Duke Ellington:
National Junior Honor Society, Glee Club, Jazz Band, Journalism, Yearbook, Dance, Visual Arts, Band, Choir, Essay Contests, Oratorical Contests, Academic Games, Student Council, Sports and Physical Education, School Garden Project, and After-School Tutoring

Something you didn’t know:
Each year for Halloween, Duke Ellington hosts a Dukes and Duchesses Parade where students dress in royal attire and have a formal, all-day event at the school.

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