Chief Operating Officer
Sunshine Early Learning Center
NBCDI Policy Fellow
Kamren Rollins, DCAEYC member and Chief Operating Officer of Sunshine Early Learning Center, was nervous when applying for the National Black Child Development Institute’s (NBCDI) Policy Fellowship. During this 18 month program, fellows engage in intensive leadership and career development programs designed to prepare them for senior and executive-level leadership roles in policy and advocacy related to families and children.
“You have people from all across the nation that are likely going to apply. Being so early in my career, I didn’t know where I would measure up. These people in my mind would surely have their doctorate in education, and have 10 plus years in. How much would I be bringing to the organization?” said Rollins. “[But] when I saw it, it was like a no-brainer. It’s important for me as one of the leaders of the organization to look at policy decisions, and figure out how we can influence them and change them,” said Rollins.
When filling out the application Rollins had to provide details on work he had already done as well as his thoughts on early childhood education. He didn’t have 10 plus years of experience, but NBCDI was impressed enough to set up a phone interview. Ultimately, Rollins was accepted into the NBCDI Policy Fellowship. Like he’s always done, he succeeded by pushing through potential roadblocks. In this case, that roadblock was the fear his youth was a liability.
“I want to introduce [young] people to the field early on, and ensure they obtain their CDA, and college degrees to ensure they’re as competent as possible,” said Rollins. That was my thought process [when applying]. I was a little nervous about that, but I started to lean on my nervousness and lean on my innovation.”
Mentors at the Fingertips
It’s no surprise that part of Rollins’ drive to bring young people into the early childhood education field is coupled with a desire to also promote higher education. Education was a value instilled into him from a young age by his mom.
“I would say my mother always emphasized the importance of education,” said Rollins. “College for me was never [not] an option. It was just about figuring out the school I would attend.”
"It’s important for me as
one of the leaders of the organization
to look at policy decisions,
and figure out how we can
influence them and change them.”
In addition to the influence of his mother, the early childhood educators that surrounded him also played a part in building his love for education. “I had mentors at my fingertips because I had teachers that I could see loved me and wanted me to be the best that I could possibly be, and they were counting on me to do it,” said Rollins. “A lot of the children that went to [my elementary school] didn’t necessarily come from the best of circumstances, but the teachers cared, and I think that motivated all of us to want to do more.”
For Rollins, there was one teacher in particular that had an impact on him: Mr. Jenkins, his teacher from first to third grade.“He was my first male teacher, he was a black man, which was impactful. I remember him being adamant he didn’t want to leave his…he called us his kids. I’m realizing he probably selected us,” said Rollins.
In selecting Rollins’ group, Mr. Jenkins created a community from which Rollins still has friends he communicates with. More than friends, the high performance Mr. Jenkins expected of his kids left a huge imprint on Rollins that can be seen to this day. “It was important to have a male role model, but also a black male role model,” said Rollins. “He consistently wore suits or dressed professionally. It was important for us to see that. It was important for us to see a dichotomy between what was shown on television and an alternative. Interestingly now, most of the time I’m wearing suits.”
Determined to Be a Morehouse Man
Rollins first started his journey into early childhood education when he worked his first summer at Sunshine Early Learning Center after graduating high school in 2014. Going in, he was already on familiar terms with the founder and CEO, Francis J. Rollins. After all, she was his aunt. But being family didn’t mean he didn’t approach her with the same respect as everyone else.
“When you’re speaking with her, at least how I felt when I was speaking with her, I knew that I was speaking with a giant in the field,” said Rollins. “Who as a black woman, in 1968, created an organization that has stood the test of time. To do that then, be a black female entrepreneur at that time meant something.”
But beyond having respect for her, Rollins also feels gratitude because Ms. Rollins was instrumental in him being able to attend his dream school: Morehouse College. Rollins first heard about Morehouse through the recommendation of Ms. Mitchell, one of his counselors at McKinley High School. He fell in love with the institution right away, and with the help of his history teacher, Ms. Reynolds, he was able to write a personal statement that got him in. Unfortunately, he hit a major roadblock: money.
“I did not have the money to attend,” said Rollins. “ I [ended up] creating this huge, 10-page document explaining why I should go. I had my resume, my community service hours and all the other things I had written to explain what I would do if I got this opportunity. I would talk to everybody who would listen and pass it out to anybody who would read it.”
After a summer at Sunshine Early Learning Center and 10 days before new student orientation, Rollins still hadn’t found anyone to help him pay for Morehouse. He could afford other schools he was accepted into, but knowing he just had to go to Morehouse, he decided to take one final shot: his aunt. “I went into her office, the office that I’m sitting in now,” said Rollins. “Her desk is still the same way, or at least formatted the same way. I gave her [the 10-page document]. She started reading and reviewing it, and I started talking about why I wanted to attend Morehouse. I ended up crying, because it was important to me and I just, everybody had been telling me “no” or “I wouldn’t have the funds.” I told her how much I needed to go. She asked, “How much do you need to get in?” To his surprise, when Rollins told his aunt the amount, she said she’d give him the money.
"I had my resume, my community service hours
and all the other things I had written to say
what I would do if I got this opportunity.
I would talk to everybody who would listen
and pass it out to anybody who would read it.”
“I thought I was crying before, but I started really crying,” said Rollins. “She said, “I had always read about Morehouse and I want you to go and I want you to tell me all about it.”
A LYTEhouse Towards Education
Rollins would have a lot to tell his aunt about his time at Morehouse. Among his many accomplishments in school, Rollins served as President of the Student Government Association and even became a member of the Board of Trustees. But before reaching these achievements, he’d return to Sunshine Early Learning Center almost every summer, often following an internship, and once again work as a teacher. Each time back was a lesson in the power of early childhood education.
“I saw what happened when I facilitated an environment in which children learned, and not just their colors. But when they learned how to just be genuinely good people. I saw when the light bulb went off in their head,” said Rollins.
It wasn’t just during summers at Sunshine Early Learning Center where Rollins got an education on how impactful early childhood education can be. With the help of a friend, he co-found a mentoring and community engagement organization called LYTEhouse - which stands for Lifting Youth Through Enrichment. Initially LYTEhouse focused on mentoring younger students at Morehouse. Before long though they started branching out to local high schools and elementary schools, particularly ones in marginalized communities. One school in particular, Thomasville, resonated with Rollins.“It was a mile away from a jail… so if you could imagine what that did, how that impacted and played a role in the community. But still seeing the joy on the children’s faces when we would arrive and the passion that they had for education was amazing,” said Rollins.
By the end of his time at Morehouse, Rollins’ mindset had completely changed. He arrived wanting to be a lawyer, but left with a focus shifted towards education. More importantly, becoming a Morehouse Man gave him the confidence to believe in himself.
“Morehouse gave me the ability to see myself outside of what other people see. It gave me the opportunity to put all that I had grown up with, to put all that I knew I could be to practice. That’s where I became a leader,” said Rollins.
Leading Towards Early Childhood Education
Rollins left Morehouse wanting to be the kind of leader that built up communities. In fact, in his senior year he landed on the goal of building K-12 schools all around the world, which is a goal he has to this day. To start his journey, he began consulting with organizations in DC that focused on supporting marginalized communities. Wanting to give back to an organization that had already given him so much, he reached out to his aunt to see if there was any way he could support Sunshine Early Learning Center. Rollins’ intention when reaching out was just to give advice. To his surprise, that advice led to the offer of a full-time job.
At first, Rollins had fears around whether he was heading in the right direction to reach his goals. “Coming into the organization, I was confident in my knowledge of organizational structure and organizational leadership, without a doubt. I did not know early childhood education. That was not my path. I didn’t even understand the overall impact it had on a person's life,” said Rollins. But just like his previous summers at Sunshine Early Learning Center and mentoring at Morehouse, witnessing the impact his actions had supporting young children changed him.
“When I dreamed about starting and building schools, I always envisioned serving students from kindergarten to 12th grade. But it was my work in those [first] seven months with Sunshine that made the impact,” said Rollins.”
Rollins also came to realize that while his background may not have been in early childhood education, the experiences that built him into a leader gave him the expertise he needed to lead Sunshine into continued success. At the end of those first seven month, Rollins was promoted to his current position of Sunshine Early Learning Center’s Chief Operating Officer.
“Good leaders are able to plant seeds into people and then watch and encourage them to grow. But I also think that leadership relates directly back to early childhood development. Because that’s what we do here. That’s what teaching is,” said Rollins. “Obviously there’s nuance to it, but that same idea and that same practice to care for people and their holistic development. It’s similar to the same practices that we have in early childhood education, said Rollins”
Growing as a Leader
Rollins’ days now are busier than ever. Along with his regular duties as Sunshine Early Learning Center’s Chief Operation Officer, he now has to fit in the added responsibilities of NBCDI’s Policy Fellowship. As with most things during the COVID era, this includes a lot of meetings over Zoom.
Being a Policy Fellowship though, discussions around policy are a primary component. For instance, each fellow is tasked with coming up with policies around Black children they want to have an impact on either locally or nationally. For Rollins the choice was obvious.
“It’s all surrounding pay equity, right? I think the reason why I decided to choose [this topic] is because it relates so closely with what I see on a daily basis. I know how [educators’ pay] impacts not only them, but their families. In many cases they’re as qualified as their counterparts teaching elementary or high school. But they get pay that is not equal to the job in which they do. I didn’t feel comfortable picking anything else,” said Rollins.
While legislation in the United States Congress to support an increase in pay for America’s early childhood educators is still a question mark, DC has proven to be a trailblazer. Back in August 2021, the DC Council voted to approve funding to increase compensation for early childhood educators. Although implementation is still being worked out, a major milestone was made this month when the Council passed legislation that approves an early childhood education stipend of $10,000 for Assistant Teachers and $14,000 for Lead Teachers.
Although DC is closer than it has ever been to fair compensation for early childhood educators thanks to years of work by local advocates, Rollins sees a space for him to contribute to the movement through supporting and advancing the work that has already been done.
“DC is leading this space across the nation. It’s amazing to see it,” said Rollins. “And I also know it’s been a long time coming. I’m just thankful for all of the people that paved the way for this. I just want to see it continue, so it can fully encompass all of the things it needs to. I want to figure out how I can help support. We all have to be involved in this movement because it impacts our children.”
Considering how entrenched education has been to his life experience, it’s no surprise that Rollins sees this as the key to being involved in this movement. “Where I think I want to assist is ensuring that the community understands what we’re fighting for,” said Rollins. “It’s important that the community understands what the field is and is not. This is not daycare. And then, helping the general population understand that with an equitable pay and funding, the outcomes for children are enhanced.”
To accomplish this, Rollins is eyeing methods at the grassroots level. “I think it’s important to really figure out how we can meet people where they’re at, and to spread these messages,” said Rollins. “Figuring out how I can help to empower the stakeholders, or at least the workforce to get more involved.”
At its core, empowerment is what the NBDCI Policy Fellowship is all about. Along with training in leadership and policy, it’s also a space for Rollins and other Black leaders in education to fully express themselves for the betterment of their communities.
“[We’re] not always given a safe space to speak about these things in an environment where we don’t necessarily feel our words will have repercussions on us, whether that be physically or professionally,” said Rollins. “Living in DC, I don’t necessarily always have to worry about my safety if I’m discussing issues that affect Black children and how some issues and policies may have some prejudice undertone. People outside of these areas that are diverse, they don’t have that same luxury.”
While programs like the NBDCI Policy Fellowship are building the next generation of Black leaders, much still needs to be done to bring in more Black men into the early childhood education space. “Even in the fellowship, I think maybe out of 12 of us, only two of us are men,” said Rollins. “But it speaks to what the actual field looks like. Black men are not in the field as much as we should be and as much as we can be. And that’s why I think that changing the general narrative of what early childhood development is and exposing young people to the field as early as possible makes sense.”
From the daily interactions he has with the children at Sunshine Early Learning Center, Rollins knows what the impact of seeing someone who looks like him in their classrooms can do for young children. Of course, he also knows this from remembering his own lived experiences.
“We know what diversity means for young children and how that impacts how they grow up and what ideas and mindsets they have,” said Rollins. “I think it’s especially essential for Black students to be able to see Black men as teachers and role models inside of their classrooms on a daily basis. I know that their outcomes will be expanded because of that. Because had it not been for the Black teachers that nurtured me, I’m sure that would’ve impacted who I became.”