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Emails show weeklong gap between removal of Pre-K manual, departure of Pre-K director

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Emails show weeklong gap between removal of Pre-K manual, departure of Pre-K director

Sep 28, 2023 | 8:01 am ET
By Jemma Stephenson
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Emails show weeklong gap between removal of Pre-K manual, departure of Pre-K director
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Former Alabama Early Childhood Education Secretary Barbara Cooper (Office of the Governor of Alabama)

When Gov. Kay Ivey forced the resignation of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education Secretary Barbara Cooper last April, she cited the department’s use of a teacher manual that encouraged teachers to be understanding of preschoolers’ experiences. 

But emails and documents obtained through a public records request by the Alabama Reflector showed Cooper directed the department, which oversees the state’s nationally-recognized pre-K program, to pull the book in question a week before her resignation, and just a day after the governor’s chief of staff alerted her to Ivey’s concerns.

The time gap raises new questions about the dismissal of Cooper, whose work in Early Childhood Education had been praised by the governor and members of the Legislature before her abrupt departure. The records request also suggested that the drive to remove the manual came in part from a sheet that pulled quotes from the book without providing context.

The governor’s office did not release documents from the six days leading up to the dismissal. In response to questions about the gap, Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ivey, wrote that the staff serves at the “pleasure of the governor.”

The cabinet members and all of us on staff serve at the pleasure of the governor, and as I shared in the initial update: ‘Governor Ivey has made the decision to have a change in leadership at the department and accepted Dr. Cooper’s resignation immediately,’” she wrote.

Multiple attempts to arrange an interview with Cooper were unsuccessful. 

Cooper had led the department since 2020. Early Childhood Education administers Alabama’s pre-K program, which has received strong evaluations from professional groups and served as a model for other states. Ivey said in a statement in 2022 that Cooper was “taking our state’s program to the next level.”

But all that changed after complaints emerged from the Legislature about the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Developmentally Appropriate Practice Book, 4th Edition. The book, a training manual for teachers, promotes understanding of children with different life experiences.

Among other topics, it noted the existence of structural racism and the fact Black students often face more disciplinary actions than white students. It also encouraged teachers to make their classroom environments welcoming to all students. The book said children from “all families (e.g. single parent, grandparent-led, foster, LGBTQIA+, etc.) need to hear and see messages that promote equality, dignity and worth.” 

The book was meant for teachers and did not suggest discussing these topics with four-year-olds.

But in a statement announcing Cooper’s resignation on April 21, Maiola wrote that “Governor Ivey strongly believes that woke concepts have no place at any level of education in the state of Alabama and should not be taking away from the overall mission of improving educational outcomes for students,” the statement said.

The Alabama Reflector filed a public records request for documents related to Cooper’s departure in April. Ivey’s office released at least some documents surrounding Cooper’s departure in August.

In an April 13 email, Liz Filmore, Ivey’s chief of staff, sent an email to Cooper saying legislators were passing around a document with excerpts from the book – without context – and asking if the book was in use by the department.

“The attached document is being circulated around the Legislature,” she wrote. “It is obviously concerning!”

The document highlights material such as “LGBTQIA+” and “The United States is built on systemic and structural racism that has permeated every institution and system through policies and practices that position people of color in oppressive, repressive and menial positions.” It does not explain those statements as being parts of broader themes of creating welcoming environments for four-year-olds. 

Filmore’s April 13 email does not say which lawmakers had seen or created the document. The bottom of the document includes the name “Users/DGoza.” 

Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter’s staff includes Daisy Goza as executive assistant and scheduler.  Rob Green, a spokesman for Ledbetter’s office, wrote in an email that Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russelville, used Ledbetter’s office for a meeting and asked Goza to print off the document for a meeting.

It appears that Rep. Kiel was hosting a meeting with a group of individuals looking at some excerpts from a textbook or educational materials recently circulated at a public school,” he wrote over email. “From my understanding, Daisy Goza was asked to print off the document for the individuals attending the meeting—just as she does hundreds of times for members and lobbyists alike during the session. Therefore, the ‘D Goza’ on the document is simply a time stamp on our printer. That’s all I can offer since I wasn’t aware of the meeting or who was attending — as members use the Speaker’s Conference room constantly during the session.”

Attempts to reach Kiel were unsuccessful. Kiel told al.com in April that he had received a complaint from a teacher about the book.

The emails suggest Cooper responded quickly to Filmore’s request. On April 14 at 5:14 p.m., Cooper sent a message to the Department of Early Childhood Education staff that the book would no longer be used.

“After a thorough review, we have found concerning and non-age-appropriate concepts in the resource book intended for educators from this national group,” she wrote.

It also instructed all staff to return all books to supervisors no later than the 19th.

On April 14 at 5:20 p.m., Sam Adams, communications and external affairs director of the department, forwarded the email to Liz Filmore, with other members of the governor’s office copied.

What happened next is uncertain. The public records request did not include any emails relevant to the manual from the 15th to the 20th. On April 21 at 12:42 p.m., Cooper sent the governor’s office a terse letter of resignation, effective May 1. Also, at 12:42 p.m., Fillmore accepted the resignation.

At 2:12 p.m., Maiola sent out a news release saying that Ivey had forced Cooper to resign over the use of the book.

House Chair of the Education Policy Committee Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said in a recent interview that she had seen the document at the time and thought some of the excerpts were not appropriate for early childhood education. But Collins said she did not know of any attempts to remove Cooper at the time.  

“That was from the governor’s office, and I didn’t know it was happening,” she said. “I think a lot of Barbara.”

When asked if she was aware at the time that the document came from a teacher manual not something given to children, Collins texted “I heard about the information but never got involved in the specifics or details.”

Maiola told the Reflector that Ivey, Filmore and other staff members had reviewed hard copies of the book.

Lucy Recio, senior advisor of narrative and movement building for NAEYC said that the passages appear to have come from their Developmentally Appropriate Practice book.

My sense, though I am not certain, is that the compiler document was the result of someone searching for specific terms and compiling it into that document.

– Lucy Recio, senior advisor, narrative and movement, National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

“For nearly four decades, and in partnership with hundreds of thousands of families and educators, Developmentally Appropriate Practice has served as the foundation for high-quality early childhood education across all states and communities,” she wrote. “While not a curriculum, it is a responsive, educator-developed, educator-informed, and research-based resource that has been honed over multiple generations to support teachers in helping all children thrive and reach their full potential.”

Recio only confirmed that the individual passages are from the book, not the compiled document.

“My sense, though I am not certain, is that the compiler document was the result of someone searching for specific terms and compiling it into that document,” she wrote.