Day care center’s new owner working to overcome rough reputation

Laugh N Learn Academy II’s brightly painted walls, zoo animal murals and educational toys scattered everywhere show no indication of the rough reputation new owner Belinda Duncombe is working to debunk.

“I was out doing some direct marketing at Wal-Mart and I was just getting out to different places,” said Duncombe, 39. “And every time I mention where my second location is they’re like, ‘Are you talking about J’s Bright Learners, where that baby got hurt?’ I’m like, ‘It has nothing to do with her. I’m a whole totally different owner.’ ”

Last month, Duncombe signed a two-year lease to open Laugh N Learn Academy II, 5304 Seventh St. E. In July 2015, she opened Laugh N Learn Academy, 5233 Fourth Ave. Cir. E., with the help of a silent investor and a Kiva Zip Loan. Now Duncombe has 40 kids enrolled at the first facility and is close to being debt-free. She used profits from her success there to open Laugh N Learn Academy II.

Duncombe knows of several day-care centers in the area that changed names but were still under the same ownership.

“That’s not the case here,” she said firmly.

When the previous owner of the day-care facility on Seventh Street called Duncombe to ask if she’d consider taking over the lease, she had “a couple thousand” stocked in her savings account and decided it was the right decision.

The day care was previously called J’s Bright Learners, under the ownership of Jeanette Jean-Baptiste, until she was forced to close its doors on Sept. 23 knowing it was facing a fine from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The DCF investigated the center, after a child bit another child in August. A worker was later charged with child neglect related to the incident.

It took Duncombe three weeks to clean and renovate the Laugh N Learn Academy II building. She said she hired the same painters and muralists that she used at the original Laugh N Learn Academy, so the two have a uniform look. Duncombe’s husband, Andy Duncombe, 49, is a chef and prepares meals for kids in Laugh N Learn Academy’s care.

Belinda Duncombe plans to have the same meal plan at Laugh N Learn Academy II and recently bought a new stove for the facility. Through the United States Department of Agriculture Child Care Food Program, Laugh N Learn receives a reimbursement to help cover the cost of feeding the children. Because it’s a federally funded program, Duncombe said her facilities are inspected by Child Care of Southwest Florida, Inc., a nonprofit that works to “strengthen the lives of vulnerable preschool children and their families.” Child Care of Southwest Florida is a proxy organization for the USDA food program.

On top of the food inspections, DCF conducts regular inspections. Belinda Duncombe is also contracted at both facilities with the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County, which helps low-income families pay for child care through the School Readiness program. She said ELC also conducts inspections of her facilities.

She said she always wanted to open multiple Laugh N Learn locations in Manatee County. Next, she’s hoping to open a center in Parrish, where she said lots of families are on waiting lists for day-care facilities.

Duncombe signed a two-year lease for Laugh N Learn Academy II because though she’s hopeful, she’s nervous about whether her five-star rating success can overcome the J’s Bright Learners reputation. But through word-of-mouth advertising, direct marketing and social media, she is striving to change people’s minds about the facility.

“I’m going to make sure kids are taken care of well; that’s our goal,” she said. “Let’s laugh and learn; that’s our name. They’re going to play and learn at the same time.”

Herald staff writer Jessica De Leon contributed to this story.

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday

Laugh N Learn II info

Address: 5304 Seventh St. E.

Phone number: 941-201-6432

Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday

Ages accepted: 6 weeks to 12 years old