By Julie Gerke
Janene’s Lil’ Red Wagon Professional Infant Academy and Preparatory School, located at 747 W. Lafayette St. in Jacksonville, is marking its first anniversary at its new location — and owner Janene Purdon-Menke is already looking ahead.
A serpentine climber will be installed later this spring. The facility is working with Home Depot on building a covered outdoor classroom next to the age-segregated playground. Baby chicks and ducklings are in a temporary home in Menke’s office. A swimming pool also is on the list.
Already in place: Colorful paint and animal themes, multiple age-distinct classrooms, a basketball court, engaging and relatable projects, and staff who care about educating and taking care of kids.
Menke, who has worked in childcare for several decades, first opened Lil’ Red Wagon at another building along West Lafayette Avenue but was outgrowing the space. When the former Lafayette School came up for auction, she offered the successful bid.
Many of the teachers and aides have been part of Menke’s team for years. “This team is so creative,” she said. “They are the most amazing teachers I’ve been able to [work with].”
The school has two large buses and a car available to pick up and drop off children from within Jacksonville and some outlying communities.
Lil’ Red Wagon, which is open 6 a.m. to midnight daily, is licensed for 173 children in daylight hours and 57 at night. Some attend full-time, others part-time. The facility cares for children ages six weeks to 12 years.
“We have kids of all abilities,” Menke said. “We’re a very inclusive center. … We make sure everybody can succeed in every level they’re at.”
Since the building originated as an elementary school, it already had an auditorium, indoor gym, cafeteria and kitchen as well as classrooms, bathrooms and office space. Menke has reconfigured some of those spaces into specialized areas for art and science.
Teachers can design their classrooms to their taste and class age; drapes, paint, artwork, desks and toys may have a jungle theme, for instance.
Lil’ Red Wagon has students from all walks of life, Menke said, reflecting a workplace change in which parents may work outside of traditional weekday hours, or whose jobs may be hybrid. She is quick to point out the facility is not a preschool or traditional daycare but a school which prepares students “for school at all ages.”
She said Lil’ Red Wagon follows food program rules, general regulations and licensing, and food health sanitation rules issued by the state.
Menke had fire sprinklers installed before the building opened, and coordinates monthly tornado, fire and lockdown drills for staff and students. Admittance to the building requires a punch code to unlock entry doors, or the ringing of a doorbell for a staff member to open a door.
Doors and rooms are outfitted with security cameras; a huge multi-screen monitor is in the main entrance hallway.
Lil’ Red Wagon has monthly birthday parties for adults and children, and children also take a variety of field trips, including a recent jaunt to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.
The outdoor play space has a spongy surface to keep little knees from getting scraped, and hurricane fences divide areas by age. A small barn at the back of the lot is home to two miniature horses, who periodically poke their noses through the fence for a quick pet or to listen to a secret.
Lindsey Brown, the facility’s CEO, teaches the pre-kindergarten section. Recent projects included a wallboard decorated with plastic eggs, each lettered either with a capital or lowercase letter for students to match correctly. A similar project in March, featuring shamrocks, paired numbers.
Brooklyn Hayes, who is an aide for Brown’s classroom and a teacher in the infant/toddler section, was busy on a recent day draining raw eggs into plastic cups. They were placed on a sunny windowsill and a shaded shelf so the children could observe changes over a few days.
“I love kids,” said Hayes, who has been in child care since she was 17. “I just love children.”
For more information about Janene’s Lil’ Red Wagon Professional Infant Academy and Preparatory School, call 217-691-3435 or visit janeneslrw.com. In-person visits are welcome.