Add To Favorites

New Guilford schools superintendent sees academic recovery, mental health and safety as top priorities

News & Record - 9/14/2022

Sep. 11----







Copy article link









GREENSBORO — Academic recovery. Student and staff mental health and well-being. Safety and security.

"... those are the priorities as we are entering into this time of listening," new Guilford County Schools Superintendent Whitney Oakley said in an interview with the News & Record on Wednesday.

Oakley is planning on a series of conversations with parents, staff and community members in the coming days to help inform her approach to those priorities and other matters of school district administration. She doesn't anticipate that process will take as long as it would for a superintendent new to the district.

After all, Oakley has spent a significant chunk of her life in Guilford County Schools, first as a child growing up in the district, then as a teacher and principal and later as an academic leader in the district's administration and eventual deputy superintendent.

People are also reading...

Cynthia M. Allen: CDC finally admits it botched COVID response. But it still hasn't addressed the cause: politics

— Rolls-Royce exits contract with Boom Supersonic

— Multiple events in Greensboro this weekend will impact traffic and parking options

Greensboro cancels 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb

Reidsville shooting leaves one juvenile dead, another charged with murder

— National gathering of social justice groups is a chance for Greensboro to 'show off'

— Ask a Reporter: Where is the power going to come from to run all these electric-powered vehicles? Quick Take: No. 6 Reidsville 35, Eastern Alamance 28

— 1 killed in wreck Friday night on US 29; driver charged with DWI, felony death by motor vehicle

— Teen shot 10-year-old cousin with stolen gun, police say; victim's mom says shooting was accidental

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's monarch for 70 years, dies

— Inmate dies after medical emergency in Rockingham County jail, sheriff's office says

— 2 Triad Cook Outs robbed early Friday, police say

— Getting their jam on: NC Folk Festival opens up the stage to anyone who wants to perform

Grace Nwokocha, former sprinter in N.C. A&T track and field program, gets provisional suspension from Athletics Integrity Unit

The Guilford County Board of Education voted 8-1 to appoint Oakley as superintendent on Aug. 31. Oakley had been serving as acting superintendent for more than a month before the vote, while board members conducted a nationwide search via a search firm to replace Sharon Contreras, who is now leading a nonprofit working group of North Carolina superintendents.

Oakley won praise from school board members for her communication with them and for her assessment of challenges facing the district, among other points.

Board member Bettye Jenkins, who cast the lone vote against Oakley's appointment, said recently she felt the district should have selected an experienced superintendent from among candidates who fit that criterion. Jenkins said she held meetings and conversations with constituents in her district about the search, and one of the top three priorities she heard was that the job should go to someone with six to 10 years of experience leading a school district.

Other than serving as acting superintendent, this is Oakley's first time as the top leader of a district.

"I do know that her communication skills have been great with me," Jenkins said, stressing that she will support Oakley as superintendent. "She was just not the choice that I made for first choice."

As the school district tries to recover from the pandemic, Oakley said she's looking to sustain proven strategies for addressing learning loss and teacher retention and recruitment efforts, while also thinking more about what the district might do differently to enhance what students take away from high school.

Oakley had a split screen to the challenges of pandemic online learning as both a top school district official and the parent of two Claxton Elementary School students. On the one side, she was in the middle of planning and troubleshooting as the district tried to figure out how to provide classes online to students in a wide range of circumstances.

On the other, she was trying to figure out how to help her children learn the material while their classes were meeting virtually.

"It was very, very hard," she said. "I'm still watching at home the kindergartener who is now in second grade struggle because of that critical period of time where a great teacher was on the other side of a computer."

Oakley said that national research is showing that three things are working well right now in large urban districts to help students catch up after missing in-person time during the pandemic. She said those are extended learning time, access to intensive tutoring, and, "accelerating, not remediating."

That means making sure classroom teachers are still teaching on grade level, she said, rather than, for example, a fourth grade teacher switching to teaching second grade math due to students being behind.

She said Guilford County Schools needs to keep going with recovery efforts like its "high dosage" tutoring — meaning, at least three separate tutoring sessions of half an hour to an hour each week using tutors who consistently work with the same child or children. The hundreds of tutors in the program have ranged from graduate assistants at UNCG and N.C. A&T to teachers, high school students and community partners.

For the longer term, ensuring sustainability would also mean finding other funding, whether that be nonprofit grants, other special federal or state funding, or budget rearranging to cover the money that is being used from limited-time sources such as federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars.

Even as Guilford County Schools looks for ways to sustain these newer recovery initiatives, Oakley said it's critical that the district continue to value and invest in staff and teachers and create career pathways within the district that make staff want to stick around long term.

And, on top of continuing those efforts already in motion, Oakley said she's going to be thinking more about what else might be done to help students graduate high school with more credentials and more college-level courses completed.

During her first school board meeting as acting superintendent in July, Oakley welcomed the district's chief student services officer to the podium to give a presentation on ongoing and upcoming efforts to improve student mental health. And she explained that an additional presentation on state and district efforts to aid staff mental health could be scheduled for the board at another time.

Among the next steps outlined in the presentation were the expansion of mental health, social and behavioral health, and character education curriculum, and the establishment of mental health screening protocols in all schools.

In August, the board heard a similar overview presentation on school safety and security efforts.

One of those is new, touchless weapons scanners that students at the traditional high schools have to walk through on the way into their buildings. The district is also upgrading or adding security cameras in many schools and will be working to install equipment to help boost radio signals for emergency responders, allowing them to better communicate within the schools in the event of an on-campus emergency.

Oakley has also been stressing the need for school design measures that would make schools to be built as part of upcoming bond projects more secure, as well as safer in the case of a COVID-19 resurgence or another similar pandemic, even though that adds to the cost.

"I think there are some things that are challenges that we are all grappling with," Oakley said. "The learning loss is one of them. The keeping safety as a top priority is another one of them.

"But there's just a feeling of hope at the start of the school year, and as I have visited schools, that's what I have experienced."

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

Want to see more like this?

Get our local education coverage delivered directly to your inbox.


Sign up!

— I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Jessie Pounds

Author email

Follow Jessie Pounds


Get email notifications on {{subject}} daily!

Your notification has been saved.

There was a problem saving your notification.


Email notifications are only sent once a day, and only if there are new matching items.



Manage followed notifications


Followed notifications

Please log in to use this feature

Log In

Don't have an account? Sign Up Today


(c)2022 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)

Visit the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.