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Longtime educator, school board member readies to open elementary school bearing her name

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Harper and Covington [Photo: Prince William County Public Schools]

Editors note: This is the first in a series of two stories about Betty Covington and John Harper, for which Covington-Harper Elementary School is named.

Betty Covington is looking forward to the opening of a new elementary school that will bear her name.

Covington-Harper Elementary School will be the 62nd elementary school in Prince William County when it opens this fall. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, August 24.

The elementary school located at 2500 River Heritage Boulevard near Dumfries is named after both Covington, a longtime county educator and school board member, and John Harper, Jr. the first African-American man to serve in elected county office, and the first to head county government department.

The new building is the third structure in the county to bear Covington’s name. The gymnasium at R. Dean Kilby Elementary School in Woodbridge, where she was principal for 19 years is named after her. The library at Dumfries Elementary School, where she taught and was later principal, is also named for her.

“I’ve been honored before, and I appreciate all of it,” said Covington.

Covington’s  career in education began in the 1960s. She grew up in Robeson County, N.C. on a tobacco farm where her family was working tenants. She grew up a poor “country hick” with a father who instilled in her a strong work ethic.

“Tobacco was king,” said Covington. “Growing up in the bible belt, women didn’t smoke. If they did, they were labeled ‘loose women.’ So I asked my father why it was not OK for me to smoke, but that is was OK for me to work out here in the tobacco fields? He told me ‘some questions you just don’t ask.”

Growing up, Covington never missed a day of school between 4th grade and her senior year of high school. She loved to dance, was a majorette in the band, and was on the school’s girls basketball team.

“I was fast, and a good shooter,” she said.

Covington went to college and earned a teaching degree.

When Interstate 95 was built through the town of Lumberton, it became her pathway out of town. Covington met her highway construction worker husband John MacCray Covington, whom everyone on the highway crew called “Mac.”

After the two had been married, Mac was called to help build another portion of I-95, this time in Dumfries. They moved to Prince William County in 1961 and rented a home at White Haven rooms in Dumfries.

Her landlord had cancer, and a secretary of another Prince William County education icon Herb Saunders, for whom a county middle school is named after, would come to the house to check on him.

Covington asked the secretary if she knew where she could find a teaching job. The clerk told her boss, and Saunders called Stuart Beville, for whom another county middle school is named.

Beville picked up Covington in his car and drove her to what was then the new Loch Lomond Elementary School in Manassas Park. She took a job at the school teaching 4th-grade students.

The following year, she transferred to Dumfries Elementary School to be closer to home. While there, she earned a Masters Degree in administration.

Covington in 1971 was promoted to an administrator at Dale City Elementary School to implement the county’s first year-round school program. The program ran for 10 years and helped to ease the overcrowded classroom burden on the eastern side of the county.

Four years later, Prince William County added kindergarten. Covington was appointed Principal of the Public Kindergarten Center at Saunders Middle School, which today is the Ferlazzo Building off Cardinal Drive and Route 1 in Woodbridge.

“Many of the schools did not have the room for kindergarten,” said Covington. Schools were later expanded to house 600 new kindergarten students.

In 1976, Covington was appointed Principal at Kibly Elementary School in Woodbridge – where a gym is named for her. She worked there for 19 years.

In 1995, Covington retired from the school division to run for Prince William County’s first elected School Board. Before that year, elected Prince William County Supervisors appointed members to serve on the school board.

Two years into her term on the school board, her husband was forced to retire due to medical issues. Betty Covington decided to resign from the school board and go back to work.

Covington returned to familiar territory — to Dumfries Elementary School where she had taught nearly 40 years earlier. This time, the school was in trouble, and she was hired as the school’s 4th principal in 11 years on July 1, 1997.

“Dr. Kelly [Prince William County School Superintendent at the time] asked me to go somewhere, anywhere else,” said Covington. “It’s a challenge, and I liked that school, and I believed I could make a difference.”

In her second round at Dumfries Elementary, the school won accreditation, test scores went up, and the school built a better relationship with its working parents. Instead of calling police or social services, Covington would wait with children in the school office for late parents to pick up their children. Many parents, she said, were often stuck in traffic on the way home from work.

“We’re not in the business of punishing parents,” she said. “We’re in the business of educating children.”

Other policy reforms came, too. Children who missed the bus to school could call the office and a staff member — Covington herself, many times — would drive to pick up the child and drive them to school.

She worked with churches to get money for after school education programs, and she collaborated with the Bel Air Women’s Club for donations of clothing, and the Soroptimists Club of Montclair for book donations.

“There is a lot of support out there, but you have to go out there and seek it and ask for help,” said Covington.

When it came time for Covington to retire again, she still wasn’t done with the county’s school system. In 2003, she reclaimed the Dumfries District School Board seat. She held it until 2015 when she was beaten by Justin Wilk.

Wilk was instrumental in having the new elementary school in his district, now called the Potomac District, named after his predecessor.

Covington still lives in Dumfries with her husband. She expects to be surrounded by friends, and family members from North Carolin

a for the school ribbon-cutting ceremony dedication scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 24, at the school located at 2500 River Heritage Boulevard near Dumfries.

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  • I love Mrs. Covington!! She’s always greeted me with a smile and a warm hello. I enjoyed reading her story and I look forward to seeing her again.



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