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Covington-Harper Elementary School dedicated, duo honored

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY — The dedication of a new elementary school was a celebration of community and racial unity.

Residents, teachers, school administrators, and elected officials gathered Thursday, Aug. 24 for the ribbon cutting ceremony for Covington-Harper Elementary School.

The school is jointly named after longtime educator and Prince William County School Board member Betty Covington, and for the first black man ever to be elected in Prince William County John Harper, who also served on the county school board.

“This is the first time a white woman and black man have their name on a public school in Prince William County, in Virginia, and possibly the nation,” said Harper. “This is history you’re watching.”

Harper

Hundreds filled the school’s cafeteria at 6 p.m. for the ceremony. Rows of school board members, Prince William County Board of Supervisors members, and state officials from Richmond sat in two rows up front.

Covington

“I am honored to receive the flowers while I can still smell them,” Harper said of the school naming. Inside these schools walls, “students have the best chance for unity, and the best chance for success,” he added.

He lamented for his wife of 58 years Beulah “BJ” Harper who was unable to join him during the ceremony, as she is recovering from a stroke. He called her his “closest advisor and wind beneath my wings.”

“Sometimes there is progress today, and then no progress tomorrow,” he said. “Hopefully she can come home to be with me again.”

Covington spoke and told her story of growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina and then moving to Dumfries to work for 54 years serving the county’s public schools. For much of her nearly 20-minute speech, she had the audience in stitches.

“I grew up poor, but poor doesn’t mean dumb,” said Covington. “And I never really knew I was poor until I came to Northern Virginia and someone told me I was poor.”

It was one of the several quips Covington delivered that drew laughter from the audience.

On a more serious note, Covington praised the School Board for which she served on for 14 years, calling it a “tough job,” and called for higher pay for its members due to many long meetings, and late-night events in the schools and the community.

“I never joined a political party. I’m not a Democrat, not a Republican. This is not partisan. I’ve always been a member of the children’s party,” said Covington.

The hallways of the new elementary school are brightly lit, with a blue, green, and yellow color scheme throughout the two-story building. Led by Principal Ron Whitten and Assistant Principal Ivana Sieiro, the school employs more than 60 people.

Faculty and staff will welcome students for the first time on Aug. 28, 2017, the first day of school for the 2017-18 school year.

The 101,288 square-foot building on 21 acres of land will hold more than 850 children, has 41 classrooms, a cafeteria, gym, library with audio/visual production area, a baseball field, and four play areas made of concrete and mulched surfaces.

The building is located in the growing Potomac Shores neighborhood outside of Dumfries at 2500 River Heritage Boulevard. The land for the school was proffered to the county, and the site graded by Potomac Shores community developer SunCal.

“SunCal proffered the site for this school, a middle school, and John Paul the Great Catholic High School (located next door) and paid for the site grading,” said Potomac District Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, who served on the school board in the 1980s and early 1990s. “I have three schools in the Montclair community where I live and nobody ‘paved the way’ for those schools. [The developers] left it up to the school division.”

In a county that consistently boasts the largest number of students per classroom in the Greater Washington, D.C. region, a new school opening is a monumental event.

“Anybody who follows the school division knows that space is at a premium,” said Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Walts. “A new school opening relieves stress on other schools.”

The school division has deployed more than 200 portable trailer classrooms at elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the county to accommodate its continuously-growing student population.

There are no trailers at Covington-Harper Elementary School, yet.

“Fifty-five years ago, we had trailers in this county. I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of them,’ said Covington.

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