St. Mary Villa Child Development Center is emerging from last year’s twin crises of deadly storms and the COVID-19 pandemic with an expanded campus and increased enrollment.
Located at 1704 Heiman Street and part of the St. Vincent de Paul Church campus, the school sits in the middle of Nashville near Fisk University.
Executive director Alyssa Garnett-Arno advocated for the conversion of former classrooms of the St. Vincent School into rooms for the center’s various age groups and moved a portion of older students to the new rooms upstairs and renovated the bottom floor classrooms for additional infant care, an age group in high demand of care for parents now that the pandemic has forced couples to quarantine for over a year.
The resulting four new classrooms aided in capacity and Garnett-Arno said they expect to fill the additional classroom spots between now and the end of this year. “There’s a continued interest in and demand for quality child care in an educational environment,” she said.
The Center serves a diverse population of students, culturally and economically.
“This is life to a tee,” she said of the Center’s student demographics. “Not everybody has the same opportunities, but in these four walls everyone has equal opportunities.”
The Department of Human Services provided St. Mary Villa with an increased license capacity that they attained last May, a little over a month after the COVID-19 outbreak. “It seems scary to do in the middle of a pandemic, but we stayed open because our families were essential workers,” Garnett-Arno explained. Households with essential workers, especially those with children, were thrown into incomprehensible circumstances, often having to make a decision between their household’s health, finances and child care.
Having been in the education and child care industry for 15 years Garnett-Arno knows the importance of structure for students. The school’s younger attendees haven’t been severely impacted socially and emotionally, Garnett-Arno said. The goal is to keep life as normal as possible for the students — school was the only consistent thing in their lives, she noted. “Our job was to do the best that we can to create and do things for these families so they could still have experiences.”
St. Mary Villa has been adhering to health guidelines, with no mask required for students ages 3-5. They’ve only had four cases of novel coronavirus throughout the entire school year, one adult and three children, all typically mild, she said.
“Your policies and procedures change as things change,” she remarked. “Our focus was to continue to pay staff and make sure we took care of them. The majority of our staff have been there for 20 to 30 years, serving second and third generations of families.” That’s a marked difference from other facilities that typically have higher turnover rates, Garnett-Arno said.
In the beginning weeks of the pandemic only 20 students were in the building at one time, she said. “We were back at our normal capacity by August.” She added the amount of inquiry calls doubled from about 15 every week for child care as the pandemic took hold.
“Nashville was already in a crunch regarding child care space; 750 statewide have closed due to COVID. That puts more pressure on child care facilities since households are hard to stay apart– there’s many new babies due to quarantine.”
St. Mary Villa offers child care on a sliding fee scale to help as many families as possible, as child care isn’t a “one size fits all deal,” Garnett-Arno said.
Originally located on White Bridge Road, St. Mary started as an orphanage over 150 years ago and became a child care center for St. Thomas West through the years. The Center moved to St. Vincent’s campus, where they’ve been a part of North Nashville for the last five years.
Garnett-Arno urges parents to call St. Mary Villa to set up a time for a visit to see the classrooms and get an idea of the Center. If a parent doesn’t feel the facility is a good fit for their needs, there’s no pressure to enroll.
“As a mom, it’s important that the school doesn’t just acknowledge and take care of my child, it’s important they take care of the whole family,” Garnett-Arno said. “It takes a small village to raise children and we’re just the beginning part of that village.”
For more information on St. Mary Villa and its services, visit stmaryvilla.org.