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Dr. Whitney Oakley: ‘I have big dreams and hopes for the future’


Dr. Whitney Oakley (center), new Superintendent of the Guilford County Schools, is administered the oath of office by the Honorable Henry E. Frye (far right), former Chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court as Oakley’s family stands by her side. Photo by Ivan Saul Cutler/Carolina Peacemaker.[/caption]

Former Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Whitney Oakley was named as the new superintendent of Guilford County Schools at the board of education’s August 30 special meeting.

Oakley becomes the first former Guilford County Schools student to lead the district.

Retired N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye conducted the swearing in ceremony, while Oakley’s husband and two sons, also GCS students, held the Bible for her.

“What a day this is for Guilford County,” said Jill Wilson, school board attorney.

Oakley took on the role of Acting Superintendent during the district’s national search for a replacement for her predecessor, Superintendent Dr. Sharon Contreras, who announced her departure from the district in January.

“I want to thank the board for placing their trust in me. I want to thank elected leaders in the room who have been so supportive of my acting role as superintendent,” said Oakley.

A Greensboro native, Oakley attended public schools in Guilford County from Kindergarten to high school. She started her career as a teacher at Frazier Elementary in GCS before serving as an assistant principal and principal in the Alamance-Burlington School System. Through her servant leadership, Oakley quickly established herself as an inclusive leader who understands the vital role teachers, parents and community members play in improving students’ lives.

In 2012, Oakley returned to GCS, where she has held various leadership positions in the district, including chief academic officer and assistant superintendent of teaching, learning and professional development. She was appointed deputy superintendent in September 2021. Oakley later accepted the role of acting superintendent as former Superintendent Contreras transitioned to her new role as the CEO of The Innovation Project (TIP). Contreras was appointed superintendent in 2016.

“Today is a special day for me,” said Oakley during her acceptance speech at the meeting.

“In some ways it does feel like my first day. I have big dreams and hopes for the future. Guilford County Schools is very special for me. I have a unique vantage point on where we have been, where we are and where I see us going,” said Oakley.

Under the leadership of Dr. Contreras, Oakley was responsible for leading key academic initiatives, resulting in increased academic achievement in all tested subject areas at all levels and for all student groups in 2019. She played a critical role in the safe reopening of schools following the COVID-19 pandemic, leading the 164-member re-entry task force comprised of parents, teachers, staff and community members, which included designing socially distanced safe classrooms and academic plans to increase student learning and engagement.

GCS’ plan was replicated by districts across the country and won top awards from the North Carolina School Public Relations Association (NCSPRA) and the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). Additionally, Oakley has been instrumental in launching nationally recognized learning hubs and high-dosage tutoring programs to accelerate learning and strengthen professional development opportunities for principals and teachers.

“I will continue to fight for every child in our community. I feel called to lead our schools in this moment. I want to finish the great work that we’ve started,” said Oakley, adding, “One of my proudest accomplishments as Chief Academic Officer was when we raised test scores across the board for all students in 2019. I know we can do it again.”

Oakley’s appointment passed 8 to 1 and was sealed with a round of applause from the packed meeting room. District 7 school board member Bettye Jenkins voted no.

“Dr. Oakley has spent most of her career serving the students and families of Guilford County. She is a collaborative leader who is deeply invested in the success of our community,” said Board Chairperson Deena Hayes-Greene. “She is a homegrown leader determined to break down barriers so all children can achieve their full potential.”

She also addressed her top priorities for the district which included student school safety, the achievement gap, school renovations and repairs, and graduation rates.

“I believe the power of public education can change the world and I am so excited to lead this change with this board.

She is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Piedmont Triad/Central Region Principal of the Year and The Business Journal 40 Leaders Under 40 Award. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in special education from East Carolina University, a Master of Education degree in elementary education from Greensboro College, a Specialist in Education, and a Doctor of Education degree in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG).

“My goal is to make GCS the best place to learn and grow,” said Oakley.

Oakley assumed her role of superintendent immediately, holding a media briefing on September 1 to discuss GCS achieving its highest graduation rates to date. GCS continued to outpace the largest school districts in North Carolina and the state by hitting another milestone in the 2021-22 school year with a four-year cohort graduation rate of 91.8 percent, the highest graduation rate in the district’s history since accountability measures have been collected.

The presentation shared also reported that, “students in 2021 were about ten points behind in math and nine points behind in reading, compared with matched students in previous years.”

Oakley said, “While we are proud of the learning gains across our student groups, most of our students are not where they need to be. We have unfinished learning to address, and I know our team of teachers, principals and staff will not rest until all of our students make the academic gains needed to grow and thrive.”