When searching for its next superintendent, Guilford County Schools (GCS) did not need to look far for its new leader. Dr. Whitney Oakley, who earned her doctoral degree in educational leadership from UNC Greensboro’s School of Education in 2011 and was serving as the district’s interim superintendent, was recently selected to guide North Carolina’s third-largest public school district. 

Oakley is now one of 11 current superintendents in the state that earned their Doctorate of Education degree from UNCG. The others are Dr. Dain Butler (Alamance-Burlington), Dr. Sandra Carter (Caswell), Dr. Jim Causby (Interim Asheville City), Dr. Joe Ferrell (Camden), Dr. Jeffery James (Iredell-Statesville), Dr. Travis Reeves (Surry), Dr. Brad Rice (Stokes), Dr. Rhonda Schuhler (Franklin), Dr. Kelly Withers (Rowan-Salisbury), and Dr. Aaron Woody (Asheboro City).

Oakley’s path to UNCG seemed destined from the start. She said, “The UNCG roots run deep in my family. My parents met here, my kids both went to preschool here. I’ve been coming to UNCG my whole entire existence. And so, I always knew that if I were in a place to pursue my doctorate, that I would do it at home.”

The program’s support and ability to fit her busy schedule were also key reasons she chose UNCG. “There’s been such strong support. And it fit my schedule. I had kids, the district office is less than three miles from here, it’s between my home and my work. And just the credibility of the program, but also, the successes that were also a part of the program,” said Oakley.

Oakley is the first person to serve as the district’s superintendent who also grew up attending those very same schools. That experience gives her a unique perspective on the district and its needs.

Said Oakley, “There are no limits to what we can be and what our kids can be. I just hope that me being a product of Guilford County Schools shows our kids that. We have great schools, we have a really strong community. I think our community continues to show up for us, whether it’s after a tornado or in COVID, or as we return to schools, voting for school bonds. I just think that there’s hope, and promise, and opportunity and that we’re at this pivotal moment as a community, and so it’s personal. You know, I want all Guilford County schools to be the best place for students to learn, for teachers and staff to work, and for our community to grow as a whole during this time.”

Photo courtesy of Guilford County Schools

Her path to this position did not start with her first job after college, but years before as a kindergarten student. Oakley said, “I knew from my first day of school that I wanted to be a teacher. I just think that the power of public education is something that’s always been a passion of mine. Just the feeling that I had as an almost five-year-old entering a kindergarten class. I knew from that moment that I wanted to be a teacher. And I still consider myself a teacher in this role. Just the feeling of being in a classroom and having a teacher that I could trust taught me how to do things I didn’t know how to do before.”

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in special education, Oakley entered the classroom as a student teacher, working in a kindergarten through fifth grade special education class in Eastern North Carolina. With many students the children of military members enrolled, Oakley recalls the school being locked down in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “We were locked down for two days, meaning we didn’t leave,” she said. “That also speaks to the role of a teacher and what you learn about students and relationships in times of crisis and tragedy. And of course, all of their parents were fine, but they were locked down on the base.”

She returned to Greensboro for a job at Frazier Elementary where she taught first grade before taking a job in Alamance County as a special education teacher. Her move into administration came during her time in Alamance County. “One day, the principal came into my classroom. It was like 6:30 at night. I remember putting things on the shelf, and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about being an assistant principal?’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ I was very happy in my third grade classroom. It was the year where the classroom was perfect. I finally had figured out where things went, and classroom management was solid. And so I became the assistant principal at that same school and served in that role for two and a half years and then went to become a principal at a very small, rural, poor, elementary school in Snow Camp.”

With the help of her staff, it was here that Oakley made the connection between health care and student performance and attendance. In this rural area with no local health care, whole families of students would miss school if one member was sick and needed to visit a doctor because they would not be able to be back in time to pick the other children up at the end of the school day.

After doing some research, she found that the average response time for ambulance services in the area was 17 minutes. The response was to write a grant that allowed for the opening of a school-based, community health center in the mobile unit behind the school. Students and staff could visit the health center during the day and it was open to the community at nights and on weekends. In part due to this action, proficiency was up by more than 10 points the following year.

A move to Burlington’s Eastlawn Elementary followed, where again a focus on health care links was important. She also focused on wraparound services, saying, “I remember going to some of the public housing that surrounded that school and just handing out alarm clocks to the kids and teaching them how to use them. And then they came to school, and they wanted to be at school. We were able to improve test scores and get off that low-performing list.”

That was the year that Oakley completed her doctorate at UNCG and had her first child. It was then that she decided to return to Guilford County and end her daily commute to Alamance County. She said, “I thought I should think about coming back to Guilford County Schools. It’s where I started, it’s where I went to school, it’s where I came from. And with a young child and a new family, it just seemed like time to take that commute off.” 

By October of 2012, Oakley had started a position as executive director of elementary curriculum. Her role continued to grow as she moved up the ladder to assistant superintendent for teaching and learning and professional development, then chief academic officer, and then deputy superintendent, and, now, superintendent where she takes over a district that recently held groundbreaking ceremonies for six new schools.

Making the move to superintendent came at the perfect time for Oakley, who has her own children in Guilford County Schools. She said, “I think we just have this momentum right now. I think this next decade is a really consequential one for public education. There are a few places where we’ve made some academic gains, but we have a long way to go. But I think my vantage point is unique because I don’t need to learn the community. I know where we’ve been, I know where we are, and I know where we need to head together. I think the mental health needs of our staff and students is critically important and a priority for me. School safety is a priority for me. So I think living somewhere, and working somewhere, and sending my kids somewhere where we have a whole community that showed up to say public education and the state of our schools matters to us is personal and emotional. And it makes me want to stay here. Being able to see that through, I think is really important. I’ve been in the work since the beginning. I don’t want to give up any of what we’ve accomplished or our commitment to the master plan that our commissioners did alongside the Board of Education in 2019.”

Dr. Whitney Oakley at a celebration recognizing Guilford County Schools award winners
Photo courtesy of Guilford County Schools

Oakley’s experiences at UNCG have helped shape who she has become as an administrator. She said, “I would say that the equity focus was fully developed here. When I came to the table and I said, ‘I’m going to interview successful female principals that are under 40 for my dissertation,’ and was pushed – whose story are you not telling? Who doesn’t get to have those opportunities? And how are those effective principals supporting all student groups? So I got to a place where I was able to talk about implicit bias and racial equity in a very public way as a young, White leader. And that has been a benefit personally and professionally. But also just ethically. When you think about the fact that our district is 70% students of color; and representation does matter. And we shouldn’t have conversations about data or achievement where we’re not in a place where we can also talk about race as a predictor of outcomes. I got comfortable doing that in the old School of Education Building across the street. That’s invaluable because many people with the privilege that I brought to that table still can’t do that.”

UNCG and Guilford County Schools have recently developed partnerships, including a tutoring program that was recognized by the Biden Administration. Those partnerships are critical to both the school system and the university and Oakley would like to see those continue and grow.

She said, “There are so many people that work in Guilford County Schools that have worked with UNCG. And there are so many people that work at UNCG that have connections to Guilford County Schools. It’s a very strong connection. I think in terms of the partnerships, so far, the biggest one has been the tutoring. And then we have the math teachers of tomorrow. So we’ve got some very specific teacher pipeline efforts that are happening. I want to grow (the tutoring program) until every student that needs a tutor has a tutor. There are people that want the same thing. At this point in time, there’s enough momentum and a strong enough relationship, that we should only be able to do more, and get better, and reach more kids. There’s lots of hope, and commitment, and momentum to expand what’s already there.”

As she looks to the future educators, Oakley wants to keep those students studying at UNCG in the local schools. She points to the community commitment to education along with the economic development and growth in the area as reasons for them to remain here.

Oakley says, “I really think people need to know that it’s a great place to live and to work. And I think as educators, and Guilford County Schools, we are very intentional about opportunities for career growth and development and career pathways.”

Driving a school bus for Guilford County Schools, serving as a secretary in the county’s transportation office, and working as a teaching assistant in Rockingham County Schools (RCS) could not fulfill Justin Cunningham’s desire to work with students. So he decided to enroll in the initial cohort of UNC Greensboro’s Piedmont Teacher Residency Partnership (PTRP), a program designed to allow people who did not earn their undergraduate degree in an educational field to gain both their initial licensure and a master’s degree in teaching within 18 months.

Now a math teacher at Reidsville Middle School who received the RCS Beginning Teacher of Excellence award in August, Cunningham puts the focus on his students. “This award helped my students more than it did me,” said Cunningham. “Twelve years ago, I was sitting in some of the same classrooms that my students are sitting in today. If my students see that I can make something out of my life and get an award for it, I hope that is motivation for them to follow their dreams and never give up when the road gets too hard. I want my students to realize that they can’t give up now. They have come too far from where they started from.”

Graduates of the PTRP program serve as teachers in either Rockingham or Surry County after working in the classroom, while also attending classes to earn their master’s degree. These counties are rural districts where the current need for qualified teachers is even more of a challenge than in others around the state. 

Cunningham said, “Reidsville Middle School is a high-poverty school. All of our students receive free lunch. A lot of our students deal with and experience many things that some of us would never dream of. There is a shortage (of teachers) all over, especially in the rural counties. The rural counties can’t compete with the larger counties when it comes to pay. The average person is going to go where the money is at, which makes it harder for the rural counties to recruit and maintain high-qualified teachers.”

Cunningham knows he is making an impact, whether through academics, or being a counselor for his middle school students. “​​The best thing about teaching middle school students is the thought of the unknown,” he said. “Dealing with middle school students, you never know what to expect. Some days you come in and the students are happy and ready to learn. Other days you come in and students are not in the best mood and I have to give them advice and guidance to overcome some of the obstacles that they are faced with. Teaching is more than just standing in front of class and showing students different ways to solve problems. Sometimes, I have to be their brother or father. The great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘If I can help somebody as I pass along. If I can cheer somebody with a word or song. If I can show somebody that he’s traveling wrong. Then my living shall not be in vain.’ That is the quote that I live by. That is my ‘WHY’ for teaching!”

He credits his experiences at UNCG to helping him be successful early in his career. Cunningham said, “My experience in the PTRP program was beyond amazing. The level of support and guidance that was extended my way was great! There was never a moment where I felt unsupported. The advisors and coaches gave me advice, support, materials, and many other things in order for me to be successful as a resident teacher, as well as a future classroom teacher. I would be remiss to say that some days weren’t challenging, however, I realized that it was worth it!

“UNCG gave me the opportunity to be beyond prepared for my first year teaching. I was lucky to be able to get a job at a school that I not only student taught at, but at a school that I actually attended as a student. UNCG allowed me to go back and give back to an institution that shaped me into the individual that I am today. With my UNCG degree, I have been able to help shape and mold young adolescents in order for them to be successful in the future and realize that they can do anything they put their mind to!”

Following a nearly two-year process, the UNC Greensboro School of Education has been granted accreditation at both the Initial and Advanced levels by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Notably, the accreditation process recognized no areas for improvement in the UNCG program.

School of Education Dean Dr. Randall Penfield stated, “Accreditation with no areas for improvement is a significant accomplishment and is the result of the commitment to continuous improvement and the hard work of program coordinators and faculty across the School of Education, College of Arts and Sciences, and School of Health and Human Sciences.”

UNCG’s School of Education was one of 32 institutions to be honored with the Frank Murray Leadership Recognition for Continuous Improvement, which is named after the founding President of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC). CAEP was created by the consolidation of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and TEAC. Murray was the founding President of TEAC, served as Chairman of the Board for TEAC and was also an initial member of the CAEP Board of Directors. He was a key advocate for a single set of educator preparation standards to unify the profession and was instrumental in the merger that created CAEP. 

“Frank Murray was passionate about education preparation, a prominent leader in our profession, and an advocate for evidence to improve education. The providers that CAEP is recognizing are committed to continuous improvement and preparing their students to succeed in a diverse range of classrooms after they graduate,” said Yuhang Rong, Chair of the CAEP Board of Directors. “CAEP Accreditation is a sign of commitment to quality through purposeful use of evidence. The Murray Leadership Recognition recipients should be proud of their accomplishments.” 

The school’s accreditation runs through Spring 2029.

UNC Greensboro’s Carla Wilson, academic technology specialist for the School of Education, has been chosen to present at the 2022 UNC CAUSE Conference which will be held in Charlotte in October.

Wilson will be presenting a session titled “Quality Feedback in a Digital Age.” There are a variety of ways that instructors can share feedback, but how can you ensure that your message is being received in the way it was intended? Session participants will look at different types of feedback that instructors can give and some of the many ways it can be shared using built-in tools inside of the Canvas LMS.

The UNC CAUSE organization is a dynamic, creative, and innovative group of professionals providing insight and support for the constituent institutions in their pursuit of the utilization of information technology. Their conferences are an opportunity for sharing, input, and dialog to enhance the UNC systems environment and directions related to the supported technologies; it also allows participants to have some influence within the state regarding issues involving the profession.