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Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education Dr. Cooper standing in front of the state capitol building.While the temperatures are arctic across most of the country, one warm spot is Black History Month. Black History heroes reflect the past, celebrate the present, and give hope for a better future. This month, NHSA had the pleasure of speaking with Black History hero Dr. Barbara Cooper.

Dr. Cooper is a Head Start alumna and secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. We discussed her trailblazing work to build a first-class early childhood program across the state of Alabama and her influential role as a Head Start champion.

NHSA: Tell me about your early life. What are your memories of Head Start?

Dr. Cooper: My cousin and I attended Head Start together on the South Side of Chicago. She was a little more nervous about school than I was, and I remember a flexible wall between our two classrooms. That wall would occasionally open, so the space functioned as one giant classroom. But, as children, we thought the teachers intentionally set it up so that we could see each other!

Head Start was such a positive experience for my growth and development and for my mother. She was growing up herself as a young mother with four children. I have vivid memories of teachers visiting my home, and I was exposed to the wonderful world of books. I fell in love with reading so much that my parents bought me books almost weekly at the grocery store, and I took them to school to read with my Head Start class. Head Start made sure I was ready for kindergarten and I will always be a champion.

NHSA: How does Head Start play a role in your current work?

Dr. Cooper: I lead the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education where we administer the First Class Pre-K Program that has been recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research for meeting all quality benchmarks for 15 consecutive years. As part of my work to build an exemplary early education model, I ensure Head Start is at the decision-making table as a preeminent voice in kindergarten readiness. We have a professional within our department who collaborates with our Head Start programs in Alabama. An aligned early learning continuum takes a 'we' not 'them' mindset, and we have the opportunity to elevate the best of all our preschool programs. Head Start is a critical voice in this work, and there's so much more we can achieve when we see each other as partners and not competitors.

NHSA: It's Black History Month and many programs are reading stories of heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They are also taking concrete steps to be more culturally responsive. As an early education leader, what's your position on building responsive and inclusive early childhood environments?

Dr. Cooper: I spent a portion of my career as Chief Equity and Engagement Officer for the Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. I believe reflective practices and inclusive classrooms are essential to achieving student success. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is intentional work. It's best to foster environments where children and families see themselves in classroom materials and curriculum and share their cultural identity with the school community. This type of environment strengthens the school-family and teacher-student connections.

On another level, DEI requires courage and a willingness to push the needle to discuss things like disproportionality in educational outcomes. It also requires being data-informed in decisions and policymaking. In the end, we maximize the benefits of a high-quality early learning environment when we intentionally pursue equity and inclusion.

NHSA: If the future of Head Start rested squarely on your shoulders, what's the one thing you would want the public to know?

Dr. Cooper: Investing in early care and education is a game-changer for every community. Every child should have the opportunity and access to high-quality early learning that prepares them to be confident, successful learners throughout life. That's what Head Start aims to do, and we need to make sure every child has this first-class experience.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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