GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. (WGHP) — She was a paleontologist in a dinosaur play.
“We were on this very stage, in this very place,” Dr. Whitney Oakley told me as we walked near the front of the cafeteria/assembly room at the Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro.
The performance she recalled happened many years ago. But it’s among the earliest memories she has of the Guilford County School System, the third largest school system in North Carolina and the one in which she’s now the top administrator.
Today, the Doris Henderson Newcomers School serves recently-arrived immigrant and refugee children in grades 3-12. It’s named after the person who was principal when the school was known as Guilford Primary School.
“My mom worked with Dr. Henderson. And she sewed the curtains (now removed) for this stage,” Oakley said. “And we lived here day and night until we knew all the words. And I’ve been a big paleontology fan ever since. But this space, in particular, will always have very, very clear memories of what elementary school felt like.”
In late August, Dr. Oakley and Dr. Henderson (now retired) reunited in front of the Newcomers school on the first day of classes for the school system. Oakley would officially become the system’s new superintendent two days later.
“She never asked anyone who worked for her to do anything that she would not do,” Oakley said describing her elementary school principal and mentor. She plans to replicate that quality in her new job.
But that replication will happen in a much different environment—especially coming out of an unprecedented pandemic.
Addressing learning loss is among Oakley’s top three priorities. The other two are mental health and school safety.
“In terms of math instruction, it’s like we went back to 1999 for 9-year-olds and back to 2004 in reading in terms of where we were as a country,” she told me. “It looks like the same here (in Guilford County).”
Extended learning time, intensive tutoring, and before/after school learning hubs for high school students are among the things Guilford County Schools have implemented in COVID’s aftermath.
Mental health is another challenge the system’s meeting with counseling and other resources.
“175,000 kids lost a parent or caregiver in this country during and after COVID,” she said. “We are seeing that locally. And so families are still struggling with generational poverty that was exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. So it’s pervasive.”
Then there’s the issue of safety.
“I send my two kids to school every day just like parents across our country,” she said. “And safety is a top priority for me.”
She’s already overseen the installation of metal-detecting scanners at the entrances of the county’s large high schools. She also initiated a clear back policy at athletic events. Federal money’s also being spent on upgrading security cameras.
For the most part, each middle and high school has a school resource officer. In some cases, the officers are shared. But Oakley doesn’t see the need for officers in elementary schools.
“There’s no data to support needing school resource officers in our elementary schools,” she said.
She and her team are also addressing recent fights at high school football games, although she points out fighting at football games is not a new concept. Even so, meetings are held weekly to make sure the games have extra staff members on hand for the games and to troubleshoot potential problems.
But she’s not ruling out a “no spectators at games” policy should the fighting escalate.
“I will tell you we will do anything we can to preserve the whole school experience for our kids,” she said. “But what we know more than anything else is that building relationships with every student having a trusted adult in the building is the best safety measure we can take.”
There are other challenges as well.
They include hiring enough teachers (There were 44 teacher vacancies the day we spoke.) and bus drivers. (There were 50-60 bus driver openings.) The numbers change each day. But Oakley says the school system’s in a much better position staff-wise than it was a year ago.
Oakey will also oversee the most aggressive school construction/renovation plan in the system’s history. This includes spending money from a $1.7 billion bond package (the largest local school bond package in North Carolina history) voters approved in May. It’ll be tough with inflation and supply chain issues.
“I don’t think we can pretend that as large as these bonds are, that (nearly) $2 billion will fix decades of underfunding,” she said. “I’m super grateful as our whole community should be to our current county commissioners who have committed to giving schools the funding they need.”
So Oakley is moving forward with one of this area’s heaviest loads of responsibility: 68,000 children, 10,000 employees, 300+ buildings, and a nearly $1 billion operating budget.
“I will always consider myself a teacher. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I want to be the superintendent in Guilford County,’” she said. “I’ll tell you what happened here was I moved through different positions all connected to teaching and learning which is our core business here. But what happened was, I didn’t want to leave.”
But she’s come a long way from being that paleontologist in the dinosaur play.
For more information on Dr. Oakley (including her teaching and administrative experience), click here.