GREENSBORO — Academic recovery. Mental health and well-being of students and staff. Safety and security.
“…those are the priorities as we enter this time of listening,” Guilford County Schools new superintendent Whitney Oakley said in an interview with the News & Record on Wednesday.
Oakley plans a series of conversations with parents, staff and community members in the coming days to help inform its approach to these priorities and other school district administration issues. She does not expect the process to take as long as for a superintendent new to the district.
After all, Oakley has spent much 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 district administration and eventual deputy superintendent.
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The Guilford County School Board voted 8 to 1 to appoint Oakley as superintendent on Aug. 31. Oakley had served as acting superintendent for more than a month before the vote, while board members conducted a nationwide search through a search firm to replace Sharon. Contreras, who now leads a nonprofit task force of North Carolina superintendents.
Oakley has received praise from school board members for his communication with them and his assessment of the challenges facing the district, among other items.
“Dr. Oakley is an engaging and inclusive leader who values the voices of others and advocates for their support in improving the lives of our students,” Board of Education Chair Deena Hayes-Greene said during of the meeting where Oakley was named superintendent. “She’s a tremendous asset.”
Board member Bettye Jenkins, who voted alone against Oakley’s nomination, said recently that she believes the district should have selected an experienced superintendent from candidates who fit that criteria. 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 position should go to someone with six 10 years of experience leading a school district.
Along with serving as acting superintendent, this is Oakley’s first time serving as a district leader.
“I know her communication skills have been great with me,” Jenkins said, emphasizing that she would support Oakley as superintendent. “She just wasn’t the choice I made for the first pick.”
As the school district tries to recover from the pandemic, Oakley said she is looking to maintain proven strategies to address learning loss and teacher retention and recruitment efforts, while also thinking more about what that the district could do differently to improve what students get out of high school. .
Oakley had a split-screen to tackle the challenges of online learning during the pandemic as a senior school district official and parent of two students at Claxton Elementary School. On the one hand, she was in the middle of planning and troubleshooting as the district tried to figure out how to deliver online classes to students in a wide range of circumstances.
On the other hand, she was trying to figure out how to help her children learn the material while their classes met virtually.
“It was very, very hard,” she said. “I’m still watching at home the kindergartener who is now struggling in second grade because of that critical time when a great teacher was on the other side of a computer.”
Oakley said national research shows three things are working well right now in major urban districts to help students catch up after missing in-person time during the pandemic. She said it was about extended learning time, access to intensive tutoring and “acceleration, not correction”.
That means making sure teachers in the classroom are still teaching at grade level, she said, rather than, say, a fourth-grade teacher switching to teaching second-grade math due to students falling behind. .
She said Guilford County schools need to continue recovery efforts like her ‘high dose’ tutoring – meaning at least three separate half-hour to one-hour tutoring sessions each week using guardians who constantly work with the same child or children. The program’s hundreds of tutors range from UNCG and NC A&T graduate assistants to teachers, high school students and community partners.
In the longer term, ensuring sustainability would also mean finding other funding, whether that be nonprofit grants, other special federal or state funding, or budget redesign to cover the money used. from time-limited sources such as the federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars.
Even as Guilford County schools look for ways to support these new stimulus initiatives, Oakley said it’s critical the district continues to value and invest in staff and teachers and create career paths. within the district that encourage staff to stay long term.
And, in addition to continuing those efforts already underway, Oakley said it will think more about what else can be done to help students graduate from high school with more degrees and more courses. completed college level.
At her first school board meeting as acting superintendent in July, Oakley welcomed the district’s director of student services to the podium to deliver 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 help staff mental health may be scheduled for the board at another time.
Next steps outlined in the presentation included expanding the mental health, social and behavioral health, and character education curriculum, as well as establishing mental health screening protocols in all schools.
In August, the board heard a similar overview presentation on school safety efforts.
One of them is new non-contact weapon scanners that traditional high school students have to walk through to enter their buildings. The district is also upgrading or adding security cameras at many schools and will work to install equipment to help amplify radio signals for emergency responders, allowing them to better communicate within schools in the event emergency on campus.
Oakley also highlighted the need for school design measures that would make schools to be built under future bond projects safer, as well as safer in the event of a resurgence of COVID-19 or another similar pandemic. , although it adds to the cost.
“I think there are certain things that are challenges that we all face,” Oakley said. “Learning loss is part of it. Maintaining safety as a top priority is another.
“But there’s just a sense of hope going back to school, and as I’ve been visiting schools, that’s what I’ve experienced.”
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Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.