UNCG alumna puts her leadership training and passion for education to work as superintendent of Guilford County Schools, the system she attended as a child.
As Dr. Whitney Oakley EdD ’11 moves into her second year as superintendent of one of the state’s largest school districts, she points to her experiences as a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro for contributing to her success as an educator.
Oakley says UNCG “roots run very deep” for her and her family. Her parents met at UNCG, she earned her doctorate in educational leadership in 2011, and her two children attended the childcare program located on the university’s campus.
Partnerships also run deep between the university and Guilford County Schools, she says, and they will help shape a successful future for the schools, the students and the communities that both institutions serve.
As Guilford County Schools’ fifth superintendent, Oakley leads 10,000 employees at 124 schools with 68,000 students. To the position, she brings 20 years of experience in Guilford and Alamance counties and a reputation for servant leadership at nearly every level.
Though she’s spent much of her career in administration, Oakley considers herself first, foremost — and still — a teacher.
“The power of public education has just been a passion of mine from the very beginning,” she says. “That was always the plan.”
A Greensboro native, Oakley is the system’s first “homegrown” superintendent. After graduating from high school, Oakley earned a bachelor’s from East Carolina University, and a master’s from Greensboro College before coming to UNCG as a doctoral student.
An Inclusive Leader
Oakley credits UNCG for helping make her a better leader and Guilford County Schools a stronger system. She says she was highly influenced by her UNCG professors’ emphasis on inclusion.
“I think it is where I was able to fully understand the intersection of equity, social justice and education,” she says. “I was definitely pushed to think beyond just my own perspective in my graduate studies.”
Her dissertation committee was especially inspiring, Oakley says. “They would say things like, ‘Whose story are we not telling?’ which encouraged me to think about life and leadership and education through an equity lens.”
Oakley says this experience was “important for me as a young, white female on a personal and a professional level and just ethically. Our district is 70% students of color now, and representation really does matter.”
Engaging a community
Oakley has strived to take an inclusive approach, and one of her first moves as superintendent was to listen to 8,000 people tell what they valued about the district and what its best future would look like.
With that feedback, she and her team forged a strategic direction built around four focus areas: accelerating learning to make up for losses during the pandemic; recruiting, retaining and rewarding top talent; strengthening the health, wellness and safety of students and staff; and preparing students for the world beyond graduation.
“I want Guilford County Schools to be the best place to learn and work and grow,” she says. “I keep that as the vision, and I think those four buckets are how we get there.”
Partnerships will also be key to a successful future for Guilford County Schools, including the mutually beneficial ones the system has with UNCG.
Oakley points to a relatively new partnership to fill a shortage of math and science teachers through the MST2 program. Beginning math and science teachers who come to the profession without education degrees can pursue UNCG undergraduate or master’s degrees in teaching, with the school district paying participants’ tuition in exchange for their commitment to teach in Guilford County Schools for two years.
A tutoring partnership is also having a significant impact, Oakley says. The school district covers the cost of assistantships for graduate students who provide 20 hours of tutoring per week in local public schools. Most of those students are from UNCG and N.C. A&T State University.
The program, Oakley says, “has helped our students recover learning loss post-COVID. Just this month the state announced that Guilford County is no longer a low-performing district, and our tutoring program played a really big role in that.”
Facing Challenges and Reflecting Pride in Community
As Guilford County Schools continues to make strides toward a successful future, Oakley sees several challenges ahead. The most important is funding.
“There certainly seems to be an organized effort to defund public education,” she says, while existing funding from government “doesn’t keep up with the living expenses for teachers and staff, and it also doesn’t keep up with the expenses to maintain our buildings.”
Still, Oakley is heartened by the support that GCS gets from the community, including UNCG.
“What makes me most proud is to see how this community rallies around our school district,” she says. “Most of the people who live here don’t have school-age children, but every single step of the way, our community shows up to make sure that our students and our staff have the tools that they need to be successful.”
Story by Dee Shore
Photography courtesy of Whitney Oakley and Toni Shaw
UNCG is addressing education challenges