On Feb. 15, while the new Dumfries, Virginia school was still under construction, Potomac Shores Elementary School was renamed the Covington-Harper Elementary School in honor of county educators Betty Covington and John Harper Jr. The school’s name gives honor to a Black man and a White woman who made strides in education – an occurrence noted as the first time a Black man and White woman are the “face” of a building in the county.


Betty Convington and John Harper, Jr. share the name of a new elementary school in Manassas, Va. (Courtesy photo)

Harper was in attendance for the renaming ceremony, accompanied by his wife, son, and additional family members. “Both Mrs. Covington and Mr. Harper are beloved for service in and beyond their Potomac District, and especially for always putting the needs of children first,” said Covington-Harper Elementary School Principal Ron Whitten in a letter to parents.

Harper, a former lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, was the first Black elected to the Prince William County School Board. He spearheaded numerous financial, social, and recreational legislative measures and programs to enhance the educational system for youth. Covington was the first woman elected to the school board and the first female principal in the county. Both honorees are elderly and still living.

“We considered him a trailblazer of the community because of that . In addition, he has also done a lot of things in the community, so we really like to make sure we are recognizing members like him so their contributions are not forgotten,” said Occoquan resident Corey Holeman.

A few years after being appointed to the school board, Harper began mentoring early-education children at Minnieville Elementary School in Woodbridge, Va.. “The teachers would always say to me, ‘Mr. Harper, I don’t know what you’re doing but the kids are always coming back to class more attentive and more studious so just keep on doing it,’” Harper said. “On rare occasions when I couldn’t make it, the kids would be so down so that made me feel good. It just stuck with me.”

Betty Convington and John Harper, Jr. share the name of a new elementary school in Manassas, Va. (Courtesy photo)

Along with helping students learn more in class, Harper also developed a system for revenue sharing amongst schools in the school system. “The county always receives 51 percent and the schools 49 and it was my notion that that is not the way to divide the revenue,” he said. “I thought it should be divided based upon priority needs. So, that evolved into a committee that eventually came up with a five-year program that would provide schools with 53 percent and the county 47 percent. Over the years that made a big, tremendous difference with the revenues schools received which contributed to building new schools.”

Harper also created recreational and social programs for students. “Midnight Basketball” for example, was a sports program providing teenagers and young adults with the ability to utilize an outlet outside of the violent behaviors occurring in the community. Midnight Basketball came to national prominence when then President Bill Clinton included funds for the program in his 1994 anti-crime bill.

Additionally, Harper set a standard for school uniforms. “I was a proponent of uniforms in school and I proposed that to the board and the community but was not successful in getting that mandatory,” he said. “So what we did was make it voluntary. So, it was voluntarily that schools chose uniforms . . . I felt good about that.”

Harper touched the lives and experiences of students and educators in the community and broken barriers for current and future African-American leaders in the county’s school system. “I just thank God that I am a part of it,” Harper says of the honorary school name. “Well, my goal is to give as much as I can to the new school, to be very active in the school. I like to mentor young kids. You know the sad thing about is it’s our education system. We don’t have enough male teachers in the systems and particularly elementary schools. So, that’s what we’d like to focus on is getting more males into elementary school.”

The Covington-Harper Elementary School is scheduled to open in Fall 2017.