Cooper Cafritz, Peggy 1947–
Peggy Cooper Cafritz 1947–
Peggy Cooper Cafritz is a prominent community activist in Washington, D.C., who was elected chair of the District of Columbia Board of Education in 2002. Cooper Cafritz’s mission was to lead the board in its mandate to improve the poorly performing, problem-plagued school district. She is best known in the Washington area, however, as the founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public high school for students wishing to pursue careers in music, theater, dance, the visual arts, or museum studies. “Ellington is an extraordinary ground,” she enthused in an Ebony interview with Richette L. Haywood in 1996.
Cooper Cafritz was born on April 7, 1947, in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of Algernon and Gladys Cooper. She arrived in Washington, D.C., to attend George Washington University in 1964, earning a degree in political science four years later. While in law school at the same university, she became involved in arts education in the city, initially in a project with choreographer Mike Malone that held workshops for students interested in pursuing careers in the arts. After completion of the project, Cooper Cafritz decided that the city needed a performing arts high school, a concept based on renowned institutions like New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts, later made famous in the film and television series Fame.
In the late 1960s, Cooper Cafritz began gathering what would amount to some $6 million in donations, and argued convincingly before the District of Columbia school board, which agreed to provide additional support through tax dollars. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts opened its doors in 1974 to a largely minority student body drawn from some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. As Cooper Cafritz recalled in Ebony, “I wanted the school to be a place where kids without other opportunities, who were very talented, could come and learn and develop into intelligent artists.” In a hire that was eerily prescient of her role in the movie Fame, actress and dancer Debbie Allen, who appeared in both the film and television versions, was Ellington’s first dance teacher.
In the early 1970s Cooper Cafritz chaired the executive committee of the DC Arts Commission, and was also a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a prestigious research organization for social sciences and the humanities run by the Smithsonian Institution. At the time, she was the youngest fellow ever to be admitted to the center. In 1973 she was named to the executive committee for the District of Columbia Board of Higher Education, whose mission was to oversee the merger between the Federal City College and Washington Teachers College. The institution that eventually came about was the University of the District of Columbia.
For a time in the 1970s, Cooper Cafritz worked as special assistant to the president of Post-Newsweek Stations Inc., based in the District of Columbia, and also worked as a programming executive and documentary producer for WTOP-TV in Washington. From 1977–79 she headed the Minority Cultural Project, founded by singer Harry Belafonte and a Pittsburgh public broadcasting station, that provided a forum for new as well as forgotten writers. For a number of years Cooper Cafritz appeared as an arts reviewer in
Born on April 7, 1947, in Mobile, AL; daughter of Algernon Johnson and Gladys (Mouton) Cooper; married Conrad Cafritz, December 21, 1981; children: two; primary custody of six other children. Education: George Washington University, BA, 1968, ID, 1971; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, fellow, 1972. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Workshops for Careers in the Arts, Washington, DC, co-founder, 1968; Duke Ellington High School of Fine and Performing Arts, Washington, DC, founder, developer, fundraiser, 1968–; DC Arts Commission, executive committee chair, 1969–74; Post-Newsweek Stations Inc, assistant to the president, 1970s; Minority Cultural Project, exec. dir., 1977–79; WETA-TV (Channel 26), Washington, DC, arts critic, 1986–. District of Columbia Board of Education, president, 2000–.
Selected memberships: DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, chair, 1979–87; Washington Performing Arts Society, 1983; PEN/Faulkner Foundation, board of directors, 1985–88; National lazz Service Organization, 1985–; Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, board of trustees, 1987; Smithsonian Cultural Education Committee, chair, 1989–; President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, after 1994.
Selected awards: John D. Rockefeller International Youth Award, 1972; President’s Medal for Outstanding Community Service, Catholic University, 1974; New York Black Film Festival Award, 1976; George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Television, 1976; Mayor’s Art Award for Arts Advocacy, 1991.
Addresses: Home—3030 Chain Bridge Rd. NW, Washington, DC 20016.
“Around Town,” a show on WETA-TV in Washington. Her involvement in numerous other organizations continued at both the federal and local levels, and included the National Assembly of State Art Agencies, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, the National Jazz Service Organization, and the Washington Performing Arts Society. She was also named to the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1987, and after 1989 co-chaired the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Equity Committee, which sought to bring more diversity to the museum’s exhibits and programs, as well as to the ranks of its staff.
Cooper Cafritz ran for the presidency of the District of Columbia board of education in 2000, campaigning on a platform that called for a serious overhaul of the troubled district. “People in this town who have a lot to bring to the table don’t run,” she said of her decision, in an interview with Washington Times writer Marlene T. Johnson. “I just felt I had to do it.” Though known for her bluntness, she was considered an ideal leader to help the board reform what had become one of the nation’s most poorly performing urban school systems.
Cooper Cafritz won the election, and deployed her formidable skills over the next two years to resolve the budgetary crises and in-fighting that had plagued the District’s administration and political overseers. An opinion piece in the Washington Times by Deborah Simmons commented on Cooper Cafritz’s track record and the challenges she faced. “To be sure, it’s easy to criticize the Cafritz school board, but it’s difficult to challenge Mrs. Cafritz, who cannot be bought off by unions and other special-interest groups,” Simmons declared. “Even Washington powerbrokers, quick to call her controlling and combative, even brusque and ornery—now find themselves having to take a deep breath and deal with her in the fight to reform D.C. schools.” With an impressive track record that resonated with parents, Cooper Cafritz ran unopposed in her re-election bid for the school board presidency in 2002, and though she failed to win the mayor’s endorsement, she won another two-year term.
Cooper Cafritz married Conrad Cafritz in 1981, and has two children. She also took over primary custody and guardianship of six other children. The Ellington School is still thriving after nearly three decades in operation, and counts among its graduates the soprano Denyce Graves and comedian Dave Chappell. More than 90 percent of its graduates go on to college. The school receives same per-pupil dollar amount as other D.C. high schools, but its wealth of programs necessitate a major ongoing fundraising campaign, and Cooper Cafritz helps raise $1 million annually for the Ellington School’s endowment fund. As she told Ebony, she considers Ellington a haven, where the teens’ “dreams are so big and real that they’ve propelled these kids out of difficult, poor, often illiterate families and into some of the finest artistic arenas in America.”
Business Week, October 13, 2003.
Ebony, January 1996, p. 37.
Financial Times, February 23, 2001, p. 15.
Jet, October 17, 1994, p. 33.
Washington Times, October 27, 2000, p. 4; November 8, 2000, p. 1; March 7, 2001, p. 2; March 16, 2001, p. 19; July 13, 2001, p. 4; August 24, 2001, p. 1; December 7, 2001, p. 4; November 8, 2002, p. A23.
“Peggy Cooper Cafritz, statement and biography,” DCWatch, www.dcwatch.com/archives/election2000/cafritz05.htm (December 17, 2003).
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