Barbara Cooper MA ’95, PhD ’09 strongly believes that being an educator is a calling, not just a job. The dramatic events of 2020 have only confirmed her conviction.
“You have to be called to do this work well because you really are impacting children who come from all walks of life,” said Cooper. “And unless you have a passion and a servant attitude and a servant leadership style, it’s going to be challenging to do this work, now more so than ever.”
Cooper was appointed Secretary of Early Childhood Education by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in July 2020. She earned both her PhD in education leadership and innovation and a master’s degree in administration, supervision, and curriculum development (magna cum laude) at CU Denver.
In addition to leading an executive state education agency that is part of the Governor’s cabinet, Cooper is responsible for 1,204 First Class pre-K classrooms in all 67 Alabama counties. Her team addresses the myriad needs of teachers, children, and families during a time when “reality can change in a day” and traditional methods are quickly falling to the wayside.
“It’s messy work, and there are no perfect answers,” said Cooper. “As educators, we have to look at this as an opportunity to mold children and not try to run away from the conversations because even children as young as four years old are experiencing this (COVID-19) pandemic, and they’re experiencing the pandemic of racism. We can’t remain silent on these issues. It’s an opportunity to lead courageously.”
In just a few short months, Cooper’s team has ensured virtual resources are reaching hundreds of early childhood students and that teachers are prepared to teach in restricted classroom settings, remotely, or both simultaneously. A personalized mentoring system is supporting teachers across the state and webinars are offered to “keep everyone understanding that although these are times we’ve not lived in before, we are committed to thriving as we determine new ways to support children and families.”
A South Side Chicago native, Cooper grew up in a home with a passion for learning, fondly noting that her mother bought her a new book at the grocery store every weekend. At age four, she was enrolled in Head Start at the Altgeld Murray Center, where she remembers Miss Ball and Miss Pugh instilling what became a lifelong joy for learning. “I was always excited to go to school, every day,” she said.
Her worldview began to develop when she attended a high school quite a distance from her home. “I saw firsthand some of the issues that were plaguing our city in Chicago, and how so many children were not experiencing education in the same way I was. Those are my earliest memories of wanting to impact communities.”
She received her bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University before her husband’s military career brought them to metro Denver. She pursued her graduate degrees while working first as a teacher and then as a principal, with two young children at home. After some time in the Aurora Public Schools as chief equity and engagement officer, as well as director of family engagement and community outreach, Cooper was recruited to become deputy superintendent of the Huntsville Public Schools in 2011, overseeing an administrative overhaul and the development of a roadmap to address more than 50 years of segregation in one of Alabama’s largest school systems.
She went on to serve as deputy state superintendent of teaching and learning and chief academic officer for the Alabama State Department of Education and at the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education as the director of the Office of School Readiness, which administers the nation’s highest quality ranked pre-K program.
Cooper said there are “countless examples” of how she was inspired by teachers during her life, all the way to CU Denver and her doctorate advisor, Dr. Dorothy Garrison-Wade.
“She whipped us into shape and demanded excellence. I’ll never forget the support that Dorothy provided.”
Garrison-Wade, associate professor emerita in the SEHD, has remained a valuable mentor and traveled to Alabama to consult with Cooper on the mandatory desegregation plan for the Huntsville schools.
“Barbara is truly a phenomenal woman,” she said. “As Barbara’s doctorate advisor, I learned just as much or more from her. She has a strong, nationwide reputation for promoting quality education and equity. I remain in awe of all of her accomplishments.”
Cooper’s children are grown, and she and her husband, Walter Cooper Sr., coordinator of the LET US Academy at Tuskegee University, have inspired the next generation: their daughter is an early childhood teacher. “One of my favorite quotes comes from Witcraft, ‘A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.’ This is why this work is so critical,” said Cooper.
“If we can get it right from birth to five when the brain is being built, we impact a child, and we impact our nation for eternity.”