GUILFORD COUNTY, NC (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 hall at Doris Henderson Newcomers School in Greensboro.
The performance she remembers happened many years ago. But it’s one of the earliest memories she has of the Guilford County school system, the third largest school system in North Carolina and the one of which she is now the top administrator.
Today, the Doris Henderson Newcomers School welcomes newly arrived immigrant and refugee children in grades 3-12. It is named after the person who was headmistress when the school was known as Guilford Primary School.
“My mother worked with Dr. Henderson. And she sewed the curtains (now removed) for that scene,” Oakley said. “And we lived here day and night until we knew all the words. And since then, I’ve been a big fan of paleontology. But this space, in particular, will always have very, very clear memories of what elementary school was like.
In late August, Dr. Oakley and Dr. Henderson (now retired) gathered outside the newcomer 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 she wouldn’t do,” Oakley said of 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 one of Oakley’s top three priorities. The other two are mental health and school safety.
“In terms of math education, it’s like we’re back to 1999 for 9-year-olds and 2004 for reading in terms of where we were as a country,” he told me. she says. “It looks the same here (in County Guilford).”
Extended learning time, intensive tutoring, and before/after school learning centers for high school students are among the things Guilford County Schools have implemented in the wake of COVID.
Mental health is another challenge the system encounters with counseling and other resources.
“175,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver in this country during and after COVID,” she said. “We see it locally. Thus, families are still grappling with generational poverty that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. So it’s ubiquitous. »
Then there is the issue of security.
“I send my two children to school every day, as do parents all over the country,” she said. “And safety is a top priority for me.”
She has previously overseen the installation of metal detector scanners at the entrances to major high schools in the county. It has also launched a clear return policy at sporting events. Federal money is also being spent on improving security cameras.
In most cases, each middle school and high school has a school resource officer. In some cases, the officers are divided. But Oakley sees no need for officers in elementary schools.
“There is no data to support the need for school resource officers in our elementary schools,” she said.
She and her team also address recent fights at high school football games, though she points out that fighting at football games is not a new concept. Even so, meetings are held weekly to ensure the games have additional gaming staff and to resolve any potential issues.
But she does not rule out a “no spectators at games” policy if the fighting escalates.
“I will tell you that we will do everything we can to preserve all of the school experience for our children,” she said. “But what we know more than anything else is that building a relationship with every student having a trusted adult in the building is the best safety measure we can take.”
There are also other challenges.
They include hiring enough teachers (there were 44 teaching vacancies the day we spoke) and bus drivers. (There were 50-60 bus driver openings.) The numbers change every day. But Oakley says the school system is in a much better position in terms of staffing than it was a year ago.
Oakey will also oversee the most aggressive school construction/renovation plan in system history. That includes spending on a $1.7 billion bond package (the largest local school bond package in North Carolina history) approved by voters in May. It will be difficult with inflation and supply chain issues.
“I don’t think we can claim that, as big as these bonds are, that (nearly) $2 billion will fix decades of underfunding,” she said. “I am extremely grateful, as our entire community should be, to our current county commissioners who are committed to giving schools the funding they need.”
Oakley is therefore moving forward with one of the heaviest responsibilities in this field: 68,000 children, 10,000 employees, more than 300 buildings and an operating budget of almost a billion dollars.
“I will always consider myself a teacher. I didn’t wake up one day saying, ‘I want to be superintendent in Guilford County,’ she said. “I’ll tell you what’s happened here is that I’ve held different positions, all related to teaching and learning, which is our core business here. But what happened was that I didn’t want to leave.
But she’s far from being the paleontologist in the dinosaur play.
For more information on Dr. Oakley (including his teaching and administrative experience), click here.
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