By Frank Comstock

Ernie Covington learned in high school that he needed a backup plan in case he wasn’t going to be in the select group of 1 percent or less of athletes who make it to the top in professional sports. That backup plan—teaching, coaching and motivating students—has brought him to his new role as the assistant principal for athletics in Bordentown nine years after college. This will be his first full year in the role.
Covington played both football and baseball in high school and college at The College of New Jersey. There were plenty of accolades in his high school career at Delran High School, including being on all-county, all-league, and all-South Jersey lists.
“In college, I was on several successful teams,” he said. “I actually went to college to play baseball and then realized how much I missed playing football, and I was lucky enough to be able to play both. Playing two sports in opposite seasons was tough, though.”
But he knew there might not be a future for him in professional sports. Covington’s Delran baseball coach, Rich Bender, who lives in Bordentown, taught him a lesson he has never forgotten, a lesson he instills in his student athletes now. “He told me to use athletics as a tool and then figure out where you are,” Covington said.
Covington is responsible for athletics at Bordentown Regional High School, and he is also the assistant principal at MacFarland Intermdiate School. He splits his time evenly between the two. Many towns, he said, are turning to assistant principals to take on other roles within the districts.
Being an assistant principal may be in his genes. His mother, Pat Covington, now retired and living in Willingboro, was a long-time principal at schools in Brooklyn and Staten Island, commuting each day from Delran. His father, Ernest Covington Sr., was a maintenance mechanic for the New York City Sanitation Department, also commuting for his entire career.
“All the mechanical talents of the Covingtons were in him. I can’t fix a bicycle tire,” he says with a laugh.
In his professional life and in academics, Covington has never been far from his roots. He grew up in Delran and went on to attend The College of New Jersey, where he majored in health and exercise science. Immediately after graduating from TCNJ, Covington did substitute teaching in Bordentown and then took a temporary job in the Ewing schools before returning to Bordentown Regional High as a full-time physical education and health teacher and part-time coach.
“One of things I like about my position is that not only am I a sports guy,” Covington said. “I’m also an assistant principal and I understand that we can’t do multi-million dollar stadiums when we’re struggling for books. I think that’s the uniqueness of the position of assistant principal for athletics, that you understand the school side. It’s not just a sports market. I think people can relate to the fact that we need new math books.”
Touching on whether sports or academics comes first, Covington stresses both and says they are equally important.
“It should be academics and athletics,” he said. “Having gone through that process more recently than most, I remind the players and coaches that it is school first. I think a lot of people forget that. I’m the first one to promote all of our kids. I try to do that as much as possible. The kids should never be in a high-pressure situation because of outside things. The pressure of being a teenager is enough. We don’t need to add to that.”
With the new role of assistant principal, Covington is no longer teaching and he clearly misses that. When he feels like he’s not interacting with students enough, he makes it a point to get out of his office.
“I hit the hallways, have conversations with the students, have lunch with them, and just walk around and talk to students,” he said. “I miss the personal connections with the students in the classroom. I need to see what is bothering a 16-year-old in 2017. It’s a lot different than what I had to deal with.”
An example, he says, is kids feeling like they need to decide the course of the rest of their lives while they’re still in high school. Covington, he said, didn’t decide on TCNJ until the spring of his senior year of high school, but some students he talks to today know which college they’ll attend much earlier.
Covington is deeply involved with Bordentown Regional High School’s OnPoint program, a concept brought into the school several years ago by Jodie Glenn, the newly appointed Community District Alliance director. OnPoint is a positive reinforcement program that Covington says has changed the attitudes of students and staff since its inception.
“We’re acknowledging the kids who do everything they’re supposed to do,” he said. “The person who does the speed limit and does everything they’re supposed to do, you don’t necessary pay attention to them. This program is an opportunity to acknowledge those students who do what they are supposed to. I’m looking forward to getting more involved in the coming year.”
Rewards for the OnPoint program include tickets for being exceptional in something, for making honor roll and for having good attendance. Even picking up someone else’s trash in the hallway or cafeteria can earn a ticket for students. The school holds events like prom ticket raffles and OnPoint breakfasts, where administrators cook a meal for students.
Originally a baseball and football coach, Covington no longer takes a daily management role with the sports teams, though he tries to attend practices when he can.
“If the baseball coach asks me to work a drill with a kid, I can do that, but I don’t want to come in and do something different than the coach,” he said. “I want to be visible for both the coaches and the players. I want them to know I work for them and my job is to get you on the field as many times as possible and make this experience as best as possible.”
Covington understands not all students will be athletes and not all of the athletes will be super stars.
“Special doesn’t mean you are always winning,” he said. “Special means that you are representing our school to the best of your ability. I think that emphasizing that will display how much pride we have for our town. It’s easy when you win a game. It’s easy when you’re an all-star, but it’s really special when students come through and are involved in a lot of organizations. The multi-dimensional athletes are important to highlight. You never really hear about them.”
Considering his future in Bordentown, Covington is quick to pivot to the students.
“The first question I always ask is what is best for the students,” he said. “I can’t control the money or the time, so I want to know what is best for the students. I want to provide opportunities for the students in the classroom and on the fields. I want to provide special experiences, maybe more night games, or more time on the fields, or bringing in special speakers. Your teacher may give you the same great advice all the time, but sometimes hearing it from someone else just reinforces it. I want to give the kids an opportunity to see how big the world is. I want to use athletics as a tool just to get where you are going.”
Covington, who has been married to Jen, a medical biller at a large medical practice in Princeton, for just over a year, lights up when he talks about his adopted community.
“Being in this position, I get the opportunity to network at a county and state level and I get to see what other schools are doing,” he said. “Even though we’re a smaller school, I see what we can do for kids. Bordentown is a special place with the uniqueness and the diversity of the community. It’s a real special place to work. I want our students to be involved and there is more room for more students to be involved.”
Covington wears all of his hats comfortably and aims to bring his positive attitude and experiences to bear for the students in Bordentown. He knows he had opportunities which he took to better his life. Now, he wants to ensure the students of Bordentown see and grab all the opportunities available to them.