Orlena Whatley has been serving meals and handing out instructional packets to families for the past two months, and that’s what the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Elementary School principal was doing last week when she learned she is the Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) 2020 Principal of the Year.
Whatley is known as a leader who takes care of her community, but she was surprised by the recognition. “I had no idea I had been selected and thought these types of things had been postponed due to the closures. I was handing out meals when [Superintendent of Schools] Dr. Hill called me to tell me the news. It was very unexpected for me. You do what you do and expect nothing in return. It’s very humbling,” Whatley said.
Whatley’s recognition comes at a time when school buildings are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic; distance learning replaces in-class instruction and schools serve meals curbside rather than in a cafeteria. When the state ordered schools to close, school principals jumped in to do what was necessary for their school communities. One of the first things Whatley did was to ask CCPS leaders if she could open her school as a food distribution site so she could ensure her community was taken care of during the closure.
Whatley’s commitment to children, her staff and the Dr. Mudd community is evident in all that she does. Her dedication to student success and community support led to her selection as the CCPS 2020 Principal of the Year and finalist in the Washington Post’s Principal of the Year program.
Dr. Mudd is one of 11 CCPS meal sites that operates daily during the week. Staff at the site serve up to 300 meals a day and see steady traffic of families and children. Whatley has been helping serve meals and hand out instructional packets each day since Dr. Mudd opened March 24 as a meal site.
Whatley has been principal at Dr. Mudd since 2017 and joined CCPS as an administrator in 2014 when she relocated to Maryland from Texas. Whatley’s perspective on leadership is being committed to relationship building, making connections and showing compassion. She is a hands-on leader and sets clear expectations for students and staff.
Whatley leads the school community with the vision that everyone can be successful. She takes the time to listen to parents, staff, and most importantly, students. Whatley captures the attention of students by taking time to understand them and their needs. Students know they matter and, in turn, put forth their best effort in the classroom and model positive behavior.
“Mrs. Whatley is the best principal ever. She is always in the hallway solving a problem or helping out. She walks around the school to check in on everyone and makes sure that we all have everything we need. We can count on her to make sure the school is doing well,” Dr. Mudd fifth grader Cheyanne Curry wrote in a nomination letter.
Anthoney Galdamez, a fifth grader, also wrote a letter in support of Whatley’s nomination. In his letter, he outlines three reasons why his principal is deserving of the Principal of the Year title. “She keeps us safe. Mrs. Whatley tries to keep us safe and healthy. Mrs. Whatley prepares us for college, military or trade school. Mrs. Whatley hopes we can have our dreams come true. Thanks to her, we have fun at Dr. Mudd,” Galdamez wrote.
For someone so passionate about education, Whatley did not initially plan to go into teaching. While attending the University of Houston as a political science major, she volunteered at the local YMCA to tutor kids. The YMCA was located in a low socio-economic area and having grown up in a similar area, Whatley wanted to give back. She spent about three years tutoring children through a program called Why Kids are Smart.
At one point, a local school principal came to see Whatley at the YMCA. “I had a principal come to see me and she said ‘the kids talk about you at school, so I needed to come meet you,’” Whatley said. It was at this point that Whatley looked into an alternative education certification program. “I was certified during the spring before I graduated from college,” she added.
Whatley graduated in May 1994 with her bachelor’s degree and accepted a job as a kindergarten teacher with Dallas Independent School District by June. “That’s how it all started,” she said.
From there, Whatley’s passion for working with children grew and so did the importance of her belief in establishing positive relationships with students. Whatley makes everyone feel important, from parents and staff to students and community partners. She makes all feel like they are at the top of her priority list. The Dr. Mudd community members are comfortable bringing concerns to Whatley because of the relationships she fosters. The community knows that she cares.
Dr. Mudd is a Title I school and many students need supports outside of school. Whatley has introduced programs such as reading buddies and forged partnerships with local churches to ensure students and their families have meals on the weekends. Whatley also works with several local agencies to help her students get what they need during the school closure.
It is important to Whatley that her students know she understands them and is there to support them. “It’s about the connection you make with kids… the relationships. Kids want you to understand them. I was a low socio-economic student. We moved a lot and my Mom worked two jobs. I’ve walked in these shoes and have had struggles as a family. It is an understanding that you never lose,” she said.
As a leader, teachers and staff see Whatley as a motivator, colleague, friend and fierce supporter of education. She pushes teachers and staff to achieve greatness and supports an environment of collaboration and teamwork. Dr. Mudd recently underwent a renovation and students and staff relocated to a transition school for two years. In leading her team, Whatley guided the transition from the old school building to the transition school and back to the renovated campus.
“Although so much pressure was placed in Mrs. Whatley’s hands, running a school and rebuilding the original school, she exceeded all expectations. The proof is in our test scores and the beautifully renovated building that we officially moved into this school year. I know in the hearts of all she has touched, she is already Principal of the Year,” Dr. Mudd third-grade teacher Kelly Brickey wrote in a nomination letter.
Whatley began her career in education as a teacher at J.N. Ervin Elementary School in Dallas. She became an assistant principal at Arlington Classics Academy in 2005 in Arlington, Texas. She also served as assistant principal at Carroll Peak Elementary School in Fort Worth for three years. In 2010, she was named principal at Versia L. Williams Elementary School in Fort Worth. Whatley relocated to Charles County in 2014 and first served as a CCPS principal at Eva Turner Elementary School.
Whatley has a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Houston and a Master of Education in curriculum and instruction from Texas Wesleyan University. Whatley also completed the Principal Certification Program with the University of Arlington in Texas and the Superintendent Certification Program at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, Texas.
As Principal of the Year, Whatley will be honored by the Board of Education later this year. Whatley was also the finalist from Charles County in the Post’s Principal of the Year awards program.