Whitney Oakley, 42, The Educator
Little Whitney Oakley was nervous the day she got on the big yellow school bus to go to Kindergarten. What would it be like at Guilford Primary School?
She hopped off the bus and was greeted by Principal Dr. Doris Henderson. She knew Whitney’s name!
The nerves evaporated. She was ready for class.
“I was about to turn five and I was like, ‘This woman is amazing,’” she says. “I knew from the first day of Kindergarten I was going to be a teacher.”
What she didn’t know was three decades later, she would be superintendent of that same school and all the other public schools in Guilford County.
Whitney grew up in Greensboro. Her father worked for Cone Hospital and her mother was a social worker. Although they divorced while she was a child, her parents instilled shared values of education and community.
“It was all about doing better for our community. I was taught that at an early age,” she says.
She thrived in school. Her Kindergarten teacher, Gloria Welborn, spurred her reading addiction. She cast Whitney, a dinosaur fanatic, as a paleontologist in the school play. And Welborn didn’t shy away from serious conversations with the children, like the Challenger Disaster, even though the kids were still at that stage where they needed help wiping their noses.
“She just glowed every day and taught us — taught me — to love it. It didn’t take much, but just watching her made me love school,” Whitney says.
She went to Jamestown Middle School and then Ragsdale High School, where she fondly remembers English teacher Linda Munns. Munns pushed her to read more and to be a better writer.
“She would hand papers back and there was lots of red ink on them,” Whitney says. “She prepared me for college.”
After graduation, she went to Meredith College with plans to become a high school English teacher like Munns. A volunteer gig working with teens and young adults with disabilities inspired her to go in a different direction.
“I don’t know what happened there, except that serving students who were differently-abled filled some part of me,” she says. She transferred to East Carolina University to study special education.
She graduated in December and headed back home. She couldn’t find a special education job, but wound up finding an opening for a first grade teacher at Frazier Elementary School in Greensboro.
She had a small class of 16 kids, mostly boys. And she was a disaster.
“I was a terrible first year teacher. I needed so much help. I loved it, but it was so hard,” Whitney says. “You had this room full of kids who needed you to tie their shoes, teach them how to read, wipe their nose, make sure that they had what they needed at home to be successful at school. It was so heavy.”
For every good day, there were four bad ones. But she stuck with it with the help of great mentors. That fall, she enrolled at Greensboro College to get her Master’s in Elementary Education. She later switched to third grade, where she started to hit her stride with older children.
A friend of the family lured her to work in Alamance-Burlington School System, where she was finally able to use her special education certification to teach inclusion classes.
“It’s the hardest and the most rewarding work that you can do,” Whitney says. “It forces you to be creative to find a way to draw out skills and competencies in kids… You have to think about kids as individuals that are bringing different things to the table and how you leverage the things they are bringing to the table.”
Curriculum Facilitator Tammy Yeatts helped her learn how to pick up the pace in her classroom to keep the kids more engaged with lessons.
She thrived with third graders, becoming a mentor to other teachers. One year, her school got a new principal, Dr. Dain Butler, now the district superintendent. He wasn’t there long before he asked Whitney to apply to be his assistant principal.
She loved it. The challenge of writing a bus schedule, figuring out how to effectively evaluate teachers, getting a hornet’s nest down from a gazebo, going after runners.
“You just do all the things. Sometimes there’s kids that need extra support and sometimes they run and that school happens to be at the corner of Highway 54 and Highway 119. You can’t let them get far,” Whitney says. “It was so cool because no two days were the same and your cardiovascular health improved.”
She studied to get her doctorate at UNCG and she applied to be a principal. She got her first position in Snow Camp, a rural community in southern Alamance County. Whitney says it was a great place to be a first-time principal, with lots of great community support.
“But it was a low-performing school. And it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was because they didn’t have access to health care,” she says.
The average ambulance response time was 17 minutes. Care was so far away, a parent often had to take all their children out of school for a whole day to take one to the doctor. The school counselor told Whitney that if they needed to fix the reading problem, they would need to fix the health care problem.
They wrote a grant and opened a clinic in a small trailer on the school property. It served staff and students during the day and the community on nights and weekends. The school turned around in a year.
“I learned it’s not just about being a great reading teacher or a math teacher. The role of public education is so much more than that,” she says.
Her success in Snow Camp lead to a job at Eastlawn Elementary in Burlington, a high poverty school that had been taken over by the state due to its poor performance. She led an entirely brand new staff, hired to improve the school. She saw the value in investing in professional training for teachers.
“Parents send us the very best they have every day and that’s a huge responsibility. We have to take that responsibility very, very seriously,” she says she learned at Eastlawn. “There were some teachers who raised the bar consistently…and the kids jump to it every single time. Students deserve access to high-quality, grade-level instruction every single day.”
There, Whitney went into neighborhoods to distribute alarm clocks and teach kids how to use them.
“It wasn’t that their parents didn’t want them to come to school on time. They were working two jobs and had multiple kids and were doing everything that they could to keep the lights on and keep them fed,” she says. “And so, it was just one more thing, but you know, we figured out how to get kids to school on time. And there, that was a game changer.”
That was also the year, 2011, when she had her first child. She decided it may be time to work closer to home. She got a job back at Guilford County Schools, as executive director of elementary education.
She championed changes to the district’s early literacy education with support from then Superintendent Sharon Contreras.
“We had a conversation and we were on the same page about early literacy. She’s like, ‘Well fix it,’ and I said, ‘It’s not going to be popular.’ She said, ‘Doesn’t matter. Let’s do something about it,’” Whitney says. “We started making decisions and bringing people along and thinking about how to get more money for more resources, for teachers and more professional learning.”
It the last decade, Whitney has moved up through the ranks, doing a three-year stint as the district’s Chief Academic Officer before she became Superintendent in August 2022. She’s most proud of her work to bring in high quality instruction materials and to promote professional learning for teachers.
She spearheaded an effort to take students to vote. And she helped promote the summer 2022 bond referendum to raise millions to restore outdated schools and build new ones.
Today, she’s the district’s first superintendent who was also a student in the system.
“I take that very seriously because it’s my home, it’s my community, and I would never be in this place without the community that I grew up in. That’s monumentally important to me.”
She’s optimistic about what the future will bring.
“Kids are good humans and they bring me hope. You know, in a time where the world can be difficult and divided, go to a school and talk to a kid. Because there, you know, there is hope.”