Little Oaks Academy is open for business despite St. Mary’s closing

Betty BeanFeature, Inside 640

Little Oaks Academy traces its beginnings to 1967, when the assistant director of the nursing program at St. Mary’s Medical Center became pregnant with twins and was preparing to resign for lack of daycare. One of the nuns who ran the hospital in those days decided it was time to open a daycare center for the children of employees.

Today, Little Oaks Academy occupies the first floor of the brick building at 701 E. Oak Hill Ave. The Religious Sisters of Mercy Convent is upstairs but is now home to only two nuns, both of whom will be moving to Nashville after the former St. Mary’s closes down Dec. 28.

Little Oaks Academy, which serves infants through preschoolers, is licensed for up to 128 children and will have the option of expanding upstairs.

Scott and Sarah Griswold have been involved with the daycare center since 2011, when their daughter Clare (now 8 and a student at Beaumont Magnet Academy) was there. In those days, membership was restricted to families of hospital employees and affiliates. The Griswolds were eligible because Sarah Griswold works for the Knox County Health Department.

Today, the Griswolds’ 3-year-old twins, Isaac and Simon, are at Little Oaks.

In 2014, Tennova asked the parents to form a group to take over management of the childcare center, and since Scott Griswold is an attorney with experience in nonprofit work, he took the lead in shepherding the 501(c)(3) application and creating the first board of directors (on which he serves).

Under the terms of the agreement, Little Oaks Academy leases the space from Tennova, which provides maintenance and below-market rent. Griswold says Tennova has been a good landlord.

“Tennova donated playground equipment, beds and gave us some startup money to ease the transition,” Griswold says. “As much angst as they’ve caused the community, they’ve been a good corporate partner to us.”

Today, there are some 78 children enrolled at Little Oaks Academy, and they come from all over Knoxville – Holston Hills, Fountain City, Bearden, downtown and surrounding North Knoxville neighborhoods. Griswold and executive director Melissa Sauls are proud of their programs and optimistic about the future.

“My wife and I have always had our children here,” says Griswold. “Never have we placed our kids on a waiting list at any other school. We’ve had time to plan for Tennova leaving, which is why we have pushed so hard to have parents from other parts of town.”

Sauls says she’s confident that Little Oaks Academy is going to thrive.

“We’ve got kids on our waiting list who haven’t been conceived yet,” she says. “I know we’re going to make it.”

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