Voices From the Field: Interview with Barbara Cooper

Alabama’s Support for Dual Language Learners

Barbara Cooper

Dr. Barbara Cooper is Secretary of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education

ED: How did you begin your career in early childhood?

I was called to serve as an educator over 30 years ago and have worked across the entire birth to workforce continuum. On July 1, 2020 I was appointed Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE) by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Previously, I served as the ADECE Director of the office of school readiness where I administered the nationally recognized high-quality Alabama First Class Pre-K program, which has been recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research as the highest quality state-funded pre-kindergarten program in the country for 14 consecutive years. Prior to joining the ADECE, I was appointed by the Alabama State Board of Education to serve as the chief administrative officer where I worked to improve leadership and governance. My administrative career is extensive as I have previously served as deputy state superintendent and chief academic officer of the Alabama State Department of Education, deputy superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, chief equity and engagement officer of Aurora Public Schools (Colorado) and a principal with Denver Public Schools. I am currently in the process of earning a certificate in early education leadership from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. I have a doctorate in education leadership and innovation and a master of science in administration, supervision & curriculum development from the University of Colorado at Denver, and a bachelor of science in education from Western Illinois University.

ED: What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?

In my role as Secretary of the ADECE, I am committed to establishing new, innovative, and effective ways for state agencies and community partners to collaborate in providing resources and support for Alabama children and families, especially those most in need. Alabama is nationally recognized as a leader in early childhood education and remains committed to equity in providing high-quality learning experiences and expanding access to early care and education programs for all children. I am committed to ongoing program evaluation and ensure our continuous quality improvement efforts are conducted by an external multidisciplinary research team. Our findings demonstrate that students who participate in First Class Pre-K are more likely to be proficient in math and reading with no evidence of fade out of the benefits of high-quality pre-k over time.

My team uses the data driven Alabama Reflective Coaching Model to provide teachers with individualized, job-embedded support that increases teachers’ effectiveness. The coaching team is leading a professional learning community to support statewide dual language learning efforts. This work focuses on the individual teacher, teams of teachers and statewide efforts aimed at improving our services for multilingual children in early childhood settings. As part of the professional learning plan, all staff are participating in a book study. The book study is designed to support team members in using research-based strategies more intentionally and purposefully to meet the individual needs of dual language learner (DLL) students in the early learning classroom.

The ADECE is the designated lead state agency for early learning and home visiting programs with family support services in all 67 Alabama counties. We recognize parents are children’s first teachers and we utilize our First Teacher Home Visiting program to leverage culturally sensitive, dual language learning support for families in their home environments. Additionally, all teachers in the First Class Pre-K classrooms are required to administer a home language survey to help identify any child who is a DLL and any child whose family’s primary home language is not English. Once this data is entered into our assessment tool, additional learning objectives are assigned, which allows the teacher to monitor the child’s emerging English language acquisition progress and provide developmentally appropriate practices during classroom instruction.

The ADECE is committed to seeking multiple opportunities to provide tiered professional learning support for the 2,408 pre-k teachers. We have partnered with the University of Alabama in Birmingham to administer the Improving Preschoolers’ Acquisition of Language through Coaching Teachers and Professional Development (IMPACT-PD) project. This is a professional development opportunity that coaches teachers on ways to improve preschoolers’ acquisition of language, targeted primarily towards DLLs. During the 2020-2021 school year, the IMPACT-PD project added a graduate micro-credential in teaching multilingual learners. Under this program, teachers complete 4-graduate level courses that can be applied towards a M.S. degree in early childhood special education or early childhood education.

The ADECE and The Alabama State Department of Education are collaborating to strengthen our continuum of support of DLLs statewide. We have established a memorandum of understanding to support the purchase of research-based services and resources through to support multilingual children in the early care and education system.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work with DLLs and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Currently, almost 6% of our First-Class Pre-K children are from families whose home language is something other than English. The greatest barrier is when the native language spoken by a family is one that is less commonly presented in a geographic location. For example, we have families who speak Farsi, Guajarati, Hindi, Korean, Spanish, Urdu, etc. If these families are new to a community with few, if any, other individuals within the community who also speak this language, communication can be temporarily challenging. This is hard for both the teacher and the family. It is also difficult to access translated resource materials for less commonly spoken languages. Most resources are readily available in Spanish but extremely limited or non-existent for other languages.

This year has been extremely challenging due to the dual pandemics, COVID-19 and social unrest. I have made a commitment with my staff that we will emerge from the pandemic better than before. In just a few short months, I have worked with my outstanding team of educators to secure high quality, developmentally appropriate virtual resources to reach thousands of early childhood students and ensure their teachers are prepared to teach in traditional or hybrid learning environments. These resources include specific strategies for engaging DLLs and connecting with families. We also use reflective supervision to ensure our teachers and staff receive the support they need when they are faced with challenges.

Diversity is a strength and our team is committed to creating inclusive early learning environments for all children and families regardless of language differences. Once staff has identified language communication as a potential barrier, our outreach efforts begin. We begin with the community by identifying any close or extended family members who have adults or older children who might serve as a translator until other arrangements can be made to support oral communication. We also work with the teacher or school administrators to identify online resources and digital tools to support with communication. Collectively, my team has been able to identify many free resources that will translate materials from English into the desired language. There are also resources that will translate oral speech from one language to another. We encourage outreach to local colleges and universities. Those with foreign language degree departments are typically willing to assist in efforts to communicate with families.

The ADECE is committed to utilizing a strengths-based models and engaging the family in all our efforts. We focus on the social connections between the child, the parent and the teacher. There are many ways to communicate care and concern for children and their families while working through language differences. Our teachers check-in with families weekly and during this process commit to learning basic words. As time progresses, the child, family, and staff learn from each other and over time, communication is strengthened.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs for DLLs and their families?

It is critical that we make an equity commitment at all levels to improve early childhood services and programs for DLLs and their families. When children are unable to access high quality services because of language differences, this results in disparate treatment and inequities in social and academic outcomes. We must prioritize services for DLLs. We can do this by having strong entry protocols including a home language survey to support us in understanding any language needs at the onset of a child’s educational journey. It is critical that we also establish processes for identifying the needs of children and families based on information gathered from multiple sources. We must develop diverse and creative ways to meet these needs, especially when communication barriers exist. We must focus on our educators and establish systems for ensuring those working with DLLs are equipped with the knowledge and resources necessary to support the children and families. We cannot assume that all teachers have the cultural sensitivity to understand the unique needs of DLLs. Failure to provide the professional learning for teachers is manifested in disparate treatment as children progress through the early care setting. We must advocate for more funding (local, state, and national level) to provide resources to areas with limited to no support. Those areas, with large numbers of DLLs, might need systemic support to make the changes necessary to support children, educators, families and the community.

Dr. Barbara J. Cooper was appointed Secretary of Early Childhood Education by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on July 1, 2020. She has served the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education since 2018,  helping to administer the nationally recognized high quality Alabama First Class Pre-K program. She previously served as the department’s Director of the Office of School Readiness and the Birth to Grade 12 Advisor for the Alabama Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation.

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