John Handley High School in Winchester just graduated its latest class on Saturday. Nearly 100 years ago, the city used $1.6 million in private money to create a model education system. WMRA’s Bonnie Barrineau looks at the lasting impact of that decision on public schools in Winchester, and at how that gift fit into Virginia’s legacy of racial segregation.
Other public schools have received large contributions. Twenty-five million dollars was given to a high school in Abington, Pennsylvania, several months ago. But Winchester’s case is unique, partly because the gift came so long ago.
JOHN SCHROTH: Judge Handley died in 1895. His will was invested in Virginia bonds. And then, in 1910, the Handley Library was built from that money…
John Schroth is president of the Handley Board of Trustees, which now controls an endowment of 4 million dollars.
SCHROTH: … and in 1923, the Handley School – which is now our high school – was built. And then through the years, we used the money to build other schools. Now we use the money for teacher enrichment and endowment of the arts.
Last year Architectural Digest named Handley High School as one of the most beautiful schools in the nation. Mike Dufrene is Handley’s principal.
MIKE DUFRENE: When I go on recruiting fairs, of course we have a banner with our school in the background. And I tell people, “That’s our school, right there.” When we get into a conversation about recruiting, I invite them here. Outside of my office, you step out on our steps and you oversee not just the Handley Bowl, but you oversee the city, with the mountains. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Dufrene’s school is fronted by dozens of white columns towering above brick arches and walkways. It evokes the classic look of the University of Virginia.
JASON VAN HEUKELUM: What I’ve been most impressed with is the legacy, the pride, the tradition, that I think has come from this endowment of over 100 years.
Jason Van Heukelum moved to Winchester two years ago to become its school superintendent.
VAN HEUKELUM: And the legacy that John Handley – Judge John Handley – left to this community back in the late 1800s has grown and grown and grown. And that commitment level of this community to education, in particular public education, is something that is real.
Van Heukelum oversees two schools that are on the National Register of Historic Places. Handley is one. The other was the school for the city’s black children. Built with Handley money in 1927, four years after the school for whites opened, it was named Douglas School, after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
SCHROTH: It looks like a miniature Handley High School. It has columns in the front. It had a very nice campus in those days. So, yeah, it was a pretty nice school.
Douglas is a one-story brick building with four white columns. It has sat empty for years, though the school board says it will become its administrative building by 2021. Judy Humbert lives across the street from Douglas. She does not view Douglas as a miniature Handley.
JUDY HUMBERT: I mean a lot of things we got were hand-me-downs. You know, if they put new stage curtains at Handley, Douglas got the hand-me-downs. It was like their stepchild. Whatever they didn’t need at some other school, they sent out here.
Humbert graduated from Douglas in 1966, the spring before the city’s schools were integrated.
HUMBERT: I don’t think the teachers that we had at Douglas could have been any better than what we had, because they took pride in what they taught us, they encouraged us to be the best that we could be. I don’t know that we’ve ever felt that pride in Handley. Maybe some people do, but I don’t think every black person in Winchester felt the pride in that building that we had out here.
Humbert was on the city’s school board in the 1990s. She’s co-author of the official history of Douglas School. It was a magnet school for blacks who were barred from local white schools and forced to travel long distances to Douglas. Her book is subtitled “A Tribute to Endurance, Belief, Perseverance, and Success.”
Today, non-white students make up the majority in Winchester’s one public high school and six feeder schools. Sixty-two percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches. Yet officials say upper-income families still claim these schools – which makes a huge difference for garnering private support.
SCHROTH: The difference in a privately endowed public school system – new state-of-the-art physics labs, chemistry labs, biology labs, new library – it’s pretty amazing.
To finish modernizing and expanding Handley High School eight years ago, the city needed 72 million dollars. One and a half million came from the Handley Board of Trustees, two-thirds of it in the form of a loan. But much more of it – 10 million – was donated outright by alumni, parents and other supporters. Handley’s greatest legacy may not be his money – it may be his model of private support for public education.