Nikki Ramirez-Jennings wants to transform the reputation of a southeast Topeka community known to outsiders for its crime and poverty.

She knows what people say about the Hi-Crest neighborhood, with nicknames like the Dirty South and Felony Acres. News media rarely focus on the good things that happen here.

And she knows what statistics say about Black and Latino people who grow up in neighborhoods like this, without access to early childhood education programs. As adults, they can expect to earn up to $26,000 per year.

“So we’re telling our little people that if you bypass kindergarten readiness, and you don’t have that skill set, that’s what your wage is going to be because you grew up in poverty,” Ramirez-Jennings said. “So that’s why we’re really working on changing that narrative.”

The executive director of Strengthening and Empowering Neighborhoods Together, or SENT, is working to open an innovative child care center to address the community’s needs — or, as she puts it, “love them no strings attached.” The ambitious project will include training for highly skilled staff, community outreach, and programming for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, speaks in February to a House committee about a $250,000 investment in the SENT Prep Academy. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The SENT Prep Academy plans to open next month with support from a $250,000 grant awarded by the Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, an organization created by the Legislature in 1999 to oversee expenditures from the tobacco settlement to improve the health of Kansas youths. The grant helped pay for the purchase and restoration of a former day care facility, installation of a playground, and some operational expenses.

Melissa Rooker, a former state representative who serves as executive director of the Children’s Cabinet, told a House committee last month about SENT’s plans to open the academy with an infant room, workforce training program and competitive wages.

“I’m really excited about the prospects for this program,” Rooker said.

The launch of the SENT Prep Academy follows a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for more child care options in Kansas. State officials allocated millions in federal aid to help address the shortage.

“Investing in early childhood care and our education system is one of the best ways we can improve outcomes for Kansas families and communities,” said Gov. Laura Kelly.

The governor said she remains committed as things return to normal to supporting the development of Kansas kids “to boost our communities, help recruit businesses, and encourage those in our current and future workforces to stay in the places they grew up.”

Formed in 2018, SENT’s programs center on housing and business development, education, and health and wellness. Ramirez-Jennings’ work with the nonprofit was recognized last year with the YWCA Women of Excellence Award.

Volunteers helped SENT transform a former child care center at 206 S.E. Lakewood Court. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The organization has relied on volunteers from Topeka schools, Advisors Excel and the Darting Basketball Academy to transform two buildings at 206 S.E. Lakewood Court. Retrofitting the facility included installation of carpet, WiFi, phones, sinks for bottle preparation and handwashing, sensory tables. The new facility includes a kitchen and potty training room.

Initially, the academy will serve children ages 6 weeks to 6 years old, plus provide limited care for school-age children during breaks from public school.

Ramirez-Jennings said families will have to pay for a seat at the academy, but scholarships will be tailored to meet their needs based on in-depth conversations. It is important, she said, for people to have dignity, as well as “skin in the game.” The idea is that attendance will be more consistent if parents are paying for the care.

The larger goal is make the academy an extension of family, Ramirez-Jennings said, “not just a place where you roll up and drop off your kids and go out.”

“We want to walk with them to eliminate those obstacles and hurdles so they can resume the visions and dreams they had before us,” Ramirez-Jennings said. “At the end of the day, we want to be able to walk away and say, they did this themselves.”

The refurbished buildings provide eight classrooms that will serve six infants ages six weeks to 12 months, 10 toddlers ages 12 months to 2.5 years, and 46 preschoolers. There will also be a mixed-age unit for eight children, infant-age to preschool, plus a unit for 16 school-age children.

Curriculum includes developmentally appropriate goals for children in four areas: social/emotional, physical, cognitive and language. Children will learn how to make friends, have group interactions and follow rules.

“These are not going to be kids in here eating Cheez-Its and Fruit Loops and watching Barney all day,” Ramirez-Jennings said.

Nikki Ramirez-Jennings says the goal is to work with families with eliminate obstacles. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas, a child care resource and referral agency, will help with staff development.

Teachers will receive classroom coaching and training specific to the curriculum. They will work toward receiving their Child Development Associate credentials within their first year of employment.

“We want every young child in every Kansas community to have access to a high quality early learning experience that sets them on a path to success as they enter kindergarten,” said Reva Wywadis, executive director of Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas. “We know the importance of the earliest experiences in a child’s life. It is very exciting to be partnering with SENT on these initiatives that can make such a difference in the lives of young children and their families.”

Without the SENT Prep Academy, the Hi-Crest neighborhood is considered a child care desert.

Ramirez-Jennings said 600 children under the age of 6 live in the neighborhood, and families face multiple challenges to access high-quality child care. They include transportation and costs.

“The need for care is with infants and toddlers, so that’s what we’re focusing on,” Ramirez-Jennings said. “Over time we hope to expand to before and after school, but right now, our focus will be on the little ones.”

She said the academy will be under a microscope because of the Children’s Cabinet grant.

“We get to be a model center of what this looks like to have highly trained staff provide that high quality educational state to change the narrative,” Ramirez-Jennings said.

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