Cover Story

The Perks of a Public School Partnership

by Teri S. Merrill, Contributing Writer


The Winchester Education Foundation facilitates the joining of hands between public schools and private citizens who recognize the value of excellence in education.

Most of us have fond memories of our elementary, middle and high school years, but upon graduation, our ties to those schools often become tenuous at best. People in Winchester, a historic small city in the Northern Shenandoah Valley about 80 miles west of D.C., also think fondly of their school years, but here they have an effective tool for giving back and supporting public education.

The Winchester Education Founda­tion (WEF) was established in 2000 as a not-for-profit educational foundation to facilitate a public-private partnership between public schools and private citizens and businesses who recognize the value of excellence in public education in Winchester.

It was reorganized in 2004 to its current structure and serves as a partnership between the Handley Board of Trustees, the Winchester Public Schools, the Judges Athletic Associa­tion and the John Handley High School Museum and Archives, says H. Russell Potts, Jr., a former Republican state senator and currently WEF’s executive director.

A deep, abiding love of Winchester and its public schools is nothing new to the people who live and work here, says Potts. But what is amazing is that a man who never lived in Winchester fell in love with it and created a legacy that exists today.

A history of supporting public education

Judge John Handley lived in Scranton, Pa., but he knew of Winchester through friends and acquaintances. He was so charmed by the town that he bequeathed $250,000 upon his death in 1895, to be invested as seen fit by city leaders. As the endowment grew, the funds were used to build John Handley High School and the John Handley Regional Library.

That history of supporting public education continues in the City of Winchester today, says Potts. John Handley High School is one of few endowed public high schools across the nation, and the WEF’s goal is to increase the amount of funds available through the endowment for all city public schools, says Potts.

“Tradition does matter, history does matter. It’s important for a community to set priorities, adhere to them, and then pass them along. In Winchester, the WEF is a vehicle for the private sector to ‘marry up’ with public schools. We see it as a great model of what can be accomplished,” says Potts.

Potts was recruited in July 2006 to oversee fundraising for the massive multiphase renovation of John Handley High School, which totaled $72 million and was funded through city funds, private donations of cash and pledges, tax credits and gifts in kind.

The high school — an imposing columned structure on a hill that evokes images of the University of Virginia and Monticello — is often called a school within a park, because it sits on about 40 acres in the middle of the city and is filled with towering trees, shrubs, grass and walking paths. There was discussion among residents, prior to the renovation, about whether the old high school should be razed or renovated. “The decision was to renovate, because the school and the campus are such a community treasure and icon,” says Potts.

In fact, on any day of the week, the lush, tree-filled school grounds and its meandering walking paths host dog walkers, joggers, mothers with baby strollers and other members of the community who come to enjoy the beauty of the campus or are just passing through. There are also four elementary schools and one middle school in the Winchester Public School system with a student population of a little more than 4,300.

The schools here have their share of challenges, as a direct result of diminishing funding from federal, state and city governments, says Dr. Rick L. Leonard, superintendent of Winchester Public Schools. Class sizes have increased, some instructional programs have been eliminated and/or reduced, and many innovative improvements have been delayed or deferred.

At the same time, the federal and state governments have continued to add academic requirements and increased student achievement accountability measures without additional funding, Dr. Leonard says.

“In the midst of these challenges, the WEF has been a ray of hope, particularly in its financial support,” says Dr. Leonard. “Winchester public schools are fortunate to have an active, vibrant Foundation to raise additional funds to supplement government funding sources.”

Unique initiatives

In its short history, the WEF has sponsored several unique initiatives to benefit the public schools. The high school auditorium was named the Patsy Cline Theater, in honor of the late country music singer who lived in Winchester and eventually went on to record numerous hits, including “Crazy,” written by Willie Nelson and performed by him in a special event at the Patsy Cline Theater in fall 2009.

Other performances that have been held in the Theater include concerts by the Beach Boys, Wynona Judd and Lee Ann Rimes. Part of the proceeds from these concerts went to the WEF.

Free Admission Program

The WEF also established a Free Admission Program for all public school children to attend, free of charge, any school sporting event, extracurricular activities such as musicals, math league and debates at the high school and middle school. The program, sponsored by several local businesses, has meant that student attendance at most events has increased significantly, says Potts.

“If you would have told me a few years ago that the girls’ volleyball games would be standing-room only as the result of the Free Admission Program, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he laughs.

The WEF established its own scholarship for two graduating seniors from John Handley High School. Additionally, it facilitates two student scholarships at graduation, sponsored by Rubbermaid Commercial Products, and O’Sullivan Films, Inc., among the top manufacturers in the area.

The WEF, through the donation of two Handley graduates, also annually supports an endowed chair in the high school English department.

“A lot of people recognize that youth is our greatest natural resource in this country. They see their donation as an investment, because they realize that tax money can’t provide the full ledger of support needed in these competitive economic times,” says Potts.

Potts says he has been “overwhelmed” by the generosity of the community and the depth of the loyalty of graduates from Winchester public schools. “They carry their feelings about this city and school with them all their lives. They’ve had happy experiences with their coaches, their teachers and their classmates. So many people carry this pride in their hearts, and the result is that they give gifts, both large and small, to the WEF,” he says.

Generous Contributors Support Public Education

Members of this small city, with a population of just over 26,000 in 2010, have continually stepped up over the years to support public education in Winchester. Below are examples of their generous giving to the Winchester Education Foundation: Handley High School graduate, James R. Wilkins, Jr., contributed $1 million toward the renovation of the football stadium at John Handley High School, now named the James R. Wilkins, Jr. Stadium at the Handley Bowl.

Handley High School graduates, Lewis and Shep Campbell, donated $550,000 for the Hunter Maddex, James Omps Gymnasium, one a former head basketball coach and the other a former athletic director with a combined service record of more than 50 years at Handley.

Handley High School graduates, the late Donald “Butch” and Stephanie Jones family, donated $100,000. Some of the money was used to purchase two 25-second play clocks for the football field, and the remainder was to be used at the discretion of the WEF and the city School Board.

Handley High School graduates, J.J. and Kaye Smith, pledged to donate $700,000 to the WEF to fund an endowed chair in honor of Handley English teacher Jim Porterfield, their former English instructor, who retired in 2001 after teaching at the school for 28 years.

A $75,000 donation from the Adams Family Foundation, named in honor of Fern and Douglas Adams, was made to fund field trips for the sixth-grade class at Daniel Morgan Middle School, which had been limited or cancelled for several years due to budgetary constraints.

Two children of long-time city teacher, Virginia Homar, continued her legacy by contributing $15,000. Bruce and Donnie Homar donated to the WEF at the Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School, where their mother taught for 24 years and now has the school commons area named after her.

Joyce McKee Allen made a gift of $80,000, half of which will be used to purchase a new scoreboard for the basketball court and to name the West Hallway at the school; half will be used at the discretion of the WEF.

A Century of Electric Light at Handley Library

by Brenda Sanford Diehl, Contributing Writer

Handley Library opened its doors for the first time to the public on Aug. 21, 1913, during an evening celebration made even more special by all of the electric lights that had been installed. Electrical lighting today is commonplace, but in 1913, things were quite different.

Even though Thomas Edison demonstrated the first electric light bulb in 1879, Handley Library was still one of the first public buildings in Winchester to be constructed with wiring for electrical lights. The Evening Star characterized the city’s new library with descriptions like “brilliant with hundreds of electric lights,” and the Times-Dispatch in Richmond reported on Aug. 23, 1913, that the library was “Bril­liantly illuminated from dome to base­ment with hundreds of electric lights …”

The original instal­lation of electrical fixtures was done by Enos Electric Fixture Com­pany of New York through local agent John H. Snyder. It was the largest contract for fixtures that had ever been awarded in Win­ches­ter. The original lighting fixtures in the rotunda, which are still in use today, bear the patent number of Thomas Edison. Unfortu­nately, electrical lights were identified as one source of the cost overruns during construction!

In 1929, on the 50th anniversary of Edison’s incandescent light bulb, the Northern Virginia Power Company put 30 large, electric spotlights on Handley Library, illuminating it for more than a week. People came from around the region to see the wondrous site. Librarian C. Vernon Eddy took a picture of the spotlights on the library and sent it to Thomas Edison, who replied that Handley Library was “… one of the most beautiful buildings that I have ever seen.”

A favorite story around the library is about the original architectural plans for constructing the library. In the early 1960s, Edward K. Miller, property manager of the Northern Virginia Power Company at 14 North Loudoun Street, came to Librarian David Rowland with a huge roll of drawings. “Here, these belong to you,” he told Mr. Rowland. Apparently, the original pen-and-ink floor plans on linen had been kept for decades in the attic of the company’s building. These drawings later served as an invaluable resource for the 1979 addition and the 1999 renovation. The drawings have now been preserved in the Stewart Bell, Jr. Archives. Prints of these drawings have been made possible through funding from a Meredith Green bequest, and are available on the library’s website for purchase:

In a recent presentation, Library Director Trish Ridgeway related a story about the 1979 addition to Handley Library where the original chandeliers and wall sconces were removed and replaced by a large, Colonial Williamsburg chandelier and wall sconces. Preservation of Historic Winchester  wrote a letter to city council and to the library board insisting that those fixtures must go. The original lighting in the Rotunda was restored, and the Colonial fixtures were eventually sold. Handley Library is early 20th-century Beaux-Arts style architecture, not Colonial.

On Aug. 24th this year, Handley Regional Library will host a centennial celebration, and this time the most prominent story in the news will not be about the hundreds of electric lights in the building. A lot has changed in the past 100 years and light bulbs are not as newsworthy as they were in the early 20th century!

Handley Library started out on the cutting edge of incandescent lighting in Winchester, and has since added many more electric lights and upgraded power for the building to handle all of the latest electrical inventions such as computers, copiers, and other office equipment. What will the next century bring in electrical technology and innovation?

Sources: Handley Regional Library: The First One Hundred Years, Winchester, Va., 2013. “Untold Stories of the Library,” presentation by Pat Ritchie and Trish Ridgeway, April 2013.


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